No Bed of Roses

ByABC News
February 12, 2004, 11:24 AM

Feb. 13 -- Nothing can express affection on Valentine's Day better than a bouquet of fresh flowers. But those floral beauties come at a high cost for the health of the workers that harvest them.

That's because most flowers are grown free from many pesticide regulations, leaving low-wage floral industry workers vulnerable to toxic exposures.

Now, in part because of growing pressure from consumers, who are beginning to seek alternatives like organically grown flowers, flower buyers worldwide appear increasingly concerned about the environmental and health hazards of pesticide use.

Rose-Colored Glasses

About 65 percent of the flowers sold in the United States are imported, primarily from Colombia and Ecuador. For those nations, blessed by rich volcanic soils, ample sunshine and a mild climate, floriculture investment has blossomed into a large and profitable industry. Colombia alone exports about $630 million worth of flowers annually.

And even critics of the flower industry agree the stable jobs and higher-than-average wages provided by flower growers are a benefit to workers. In recent years, for example, some large commercial growers have attempted to provide better housing, schools and health care for communities surrounding their farms.

But reports from the field suggest life as a flower farm employee is no bed of roses.

On Nov. 25, 2003, for instance, about 200 workers were poisoned by pesticides at a flower farm in Colombia. A preliminary government investigation indicated many of the workers required hospitalization; three remained under observation for several days.

Such worker exposure is not uncommon, according to the National Institutes of Health. A May 2002 report in Environmental Health Perspectives described farms in Costa Rica where more than half the workers complained of nausea, skin eruptions, headache, dizziness and fainting all symptoms of pesticide exposure.

The problem isn't limited to developing nations.