Go into almost any grocery store these days and you’ll likely find some section, however modest, of organic packaged food products, as well as a section of organic produce. You probably seek out these products in your efforts to be a better citizen or healthier individual. Yet, however socially, environmentally, and health conscious you may be, you might not think about the hazardous aspects of that $7.99 flower bouquet that you impulsively toss into your cart on your way to the checkout.

Most consumers are far more likely to consider the ramifications of what they ingest than what they touch, and why not? What we put into our mouths is a much more intimate and multi-leveled experience than what we feel with our hands, but how easy it is to forget that our skin, noses, and eyes are vulnerable to toxins as well, especially if we do not feel, smell or see anything suggesting danger.

But the fact is, unless you’re buying organic, you have no idea what you’re exposing yourself to when you buy cut flowers.

Perfect Flowers, Powerful Poisons

When cut flowers are flown into the United States from South America and other countries, they are sent through the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Throughout the United States, APHIS officers inspect an estimated 500 million plants that are mailed, carried and shipped into this country by brokers, travelers, and certified nursery owners. “The plants and flowers are inspected for various things, most importantly, for the hitchhiking pests and diseases that could cause great harm to the nation’s agriculture,” explains Sue Challis of APHIS’ Legislative and Public Affairs Office. If a pest, disease, or noxious weed is found and not currently known to exist in the United States or existing in limited distribution, the plants are fumigated, re-exported or destroyed at the importer’s expense.

And while pest and disease control is crucial to keep the nation’s crops from being ravaged, we really don’t know what these importing companies are using on their flowers to ensure that they pass inspections. With United States import standards so tough regarding pests and diseases, international producers know they have to be particularly meticulous about measures to control them.

Lynn Byczynski, author of the book The Flower Farmer, writes, “Many of the flowers sold by florists and supermarket floral departments have been imported from countries where the pesticide regulations are not as stringent as they are in the United States and Canada. As a result, many imported cut flowers have been sprayed with toxic chemicals to keep them cosmetically perfect — and those chemical residues are still on the flowers when they reach this country.”

With this in mind, APHIS’ flower import inspections seem to be missing a glaringly apparent detail: inspectors do not check for pesticide residues.

The “Costs” of Cut Flowers

There have been numerous reports of florists complaining of irritation and dermatitis from the frequent handling of cut flowers. In her book, Byczynski writes, “Florists, in particular, regularly have their hands immersed in a chemical soup of water, floral preservatives and pesticide residues.”

Paul Sansone, who’s an organic flower grower in Oregon, says he frequently receives complaints from florists about the effects on their skin — including rashes and allergic reactions — from handling conventionally grown flowers. According to Britt Baily, a senior associate for the Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala, CA, “Workers who transplant, prune, cut, or pack flowers without protective clothing may absorb chemicals through their skin. Many of the pesticides used can cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive illnesses, as well as neurological disease in humans.”

An article in the May 2002 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives reports that Claudette Mo, a professor at the Regional Wildlife Management Program of the National University of Costa Rica, studied the subject of pesticide exposures during her time there from 1994 to 2000. According to Mo, “Over 50 percent of respondents who worked in fern/flower farms reported at least one of the symptoms of pesticide exposure — headache, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, skin eruptions, fainting and so on.” Mo also traced the widespread diffusion of the substance, noting “direct discharge of pesticide residues into waterways, washing of pesticide equipment in waterways, runoff reaching important aquifer recharge areas, and some anecdotes of bird die-offs after application of granular pesticides.”

Exposure to Consumers

As to whether harmful pesticide residues on cut flowers could be passed on to consumers, Dr. Terril Nell, chair of environmental horticulture and professor of floriculture at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, delivers a response predictable of industry advocates. “Pesticides used on cut flowers in the United States go through extensive federal review, including toxicology tests. The federal government doesn’t allow anything to be used that would be harmful [to consumers].” Nell claims that there is no evidence to support or document that there are any problems at all with residues affecting consumer health. “Many of these same pesticides are used on food crops,” he says, “so when you look at it that way, there really isn’t an issue.”

The fact that some of the same pesticides used on flowers are also used on food crops is of little consolation, and Nell’s assertion that there is no evidence documenting problems is not quite true. In 1998, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed eight rose samples purchased from retailers or by phone in an unpublished study. EWG researchers detected a dozen different pesticides in their tests, including two that are listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as probable carcinogens. One of those pesticides was detected in a sample at a level 50 times higher than the amount allowed in food, according to Richard Wiles, vice president for research at EWG. “There’s a fair amount of pesticides on roses, whether they come from Colombia or California,” Wiles says. Concerning consumers, Wiles hypothesizes, “It’s possible that a chemically sensitive person could have a problem [with pesticide residues on flowers], but we don’t have any evidence of that.”

Our Own Backyard Issues

The toxins associated with cut flowers are not limited to countries importing the product — especially when the U.S. government is not regulating residues on imports. And, importantly, there are cut flower operations on U.S. soil that are causing much damage to the environment and surrounding communities. In Northern California, for example, 90 percent of the United State’s lily bulbs are grown at the mouth of the Smith River, one of the country’s most pristine waterways. The Smith River boasts the country’s healthiest population of salmon and steelhead trout.

Intensive fumigants, such as metam sodium and 1, 3-D (dichloropropene), are being used at rates of more than 350 pounds per acre on the Smith River Plain, making this the area of highest per-acre pesticide use anywhere in the United States, according to Greg King, executive director of the Smith River Project. The pesticides don’t directly kill the fish, but they can have long-term effects that act to reduce the population.

The pesticides can also affect drinking water sources for humans. King and his staff tested the well water of one Smith River household where very high concentrations of 1, 2-D, a pesticide that is an extreme groundwater contaminant, were used until 1985. Two members of this family were diagnosed with cancer in 2001. “We’re getting lots of reports of people with significant lung and skin problems, and we’re looking into reports of cancer clusters,” says King.

Regardless of the multitude of illness reports, the lily growers have done nothing but object to the Smith River Project’s efforts. They even went so far as to organize a 100-person rally to protest the group’s free water-testing day in June 2002. “We don’t know of any efforts taken to protect the aquatic organisms or the people by any of the Smith River lily farmers,” says King.

So what can be done? First, King says he wants to show that organic lily bulbs can be produced. One of the Smith River Project’s primary goals in 2003 is to secure an economically viable test plot of organic lilies, and have Organic Bouquet — America’s first branded cut-flower company, purchase them. Second, he intends to investigate other lucrative agricultural enterprises that won’t create such harmful consequences for the local populations of humans and other species.

Organic Bouquet: Leading the Way

The financial success of enterprises such as Organic Bouquet — launched nationwide in August 2002 — may be just what flower growers need to see to convince them to abandon conventional methods in favor of organic cut-flower agriculture. Gerald Prolman, co-founder of Organic Bouquet, says his biggest initial challenge for launching his organic company was convincing farmers to convert to organic growing methods with which they were unfamiliar.

Many cut flower growers simply don’t believe organic growing can be accomplished profitably or easily — they say that the costs of certification are too high for margins that are no higher than what they’re currently getting. In addition, they argue, there’s more shrink, and thus, waste, because the flowers are not as cosmetically perfect as conventionally grown flowers. Other reasons they cite are that it’s just too much trouble since land slated for organic crops must remain free of prohibited materials for 36 months prior to harvest and that the crops they grow are not conducive to organic production. In addition, some just don’t see the point. Robert Ruggeri of Silver Terrace Nurseries in San Francisco, CA, says, “Most consumers aren’t really worried about the [pesticides] issue. If they were, they’d be more worried about what they eat, what goes into their bodies.”

But there are consumers who care. And profitable organic growing can be accomplished although it depends on a number of factors. Supply and demand is the main issue. But other factors for success include the individual growers’ experience, soil quality, pest and disease pressures, and the flower varieties being grown. “Over time, good organic soil and farming practices will [become profitable],” remarks Prolman, “however, it takes quite a commitment of time, effort and money to get to that point.”

The USDA’s launch of the National Organic Program last October, which encompasses certification and labeling standards, has heightened consumer awareness of the issue. This means more people are going to be looking for the USDA’s “organic” label on the produce, packaged foods and yes, even the flowers that they buy.

Currently, Organic Bouquet is the only national organic flower brand available to consumers at retailers that include Whole Foods Markets, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s. All of Organic Bouquet’s growers must be certified as organic producers and handlers by a third-party agency that is accredited by the USDA. “There is a clear paper trail at each step to identify the source and provide consumer assurance of organic integrity,” says Prolman. The company’s primary growers are in California and Oregon and it has also organized production from a network of regionally diverse growers in other countries. In early December, Organic Bouquet debuted the world’s first certified organic roses at 19 Whole Foods Markets in Southern California. Twenty colorful varieties, imported from Ecuador, are retailing at $16.99 per dozen.