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Flower business can be a toxic one

In Colombia, efforts to cut use of pesticides struggle to take hold

Workers spray foliate fertilizer at a Bogota flower farm last month. Some US consumer advocates complain that Colombia's cut-flower industry is ignoring market trends and relying too heavily on pesticides. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

BOGOTA -- It's probably the last thing most people think about when buying roses: By the time the bright, velvety flowers reach your valentine, they will have been sprayed, rinsed, and dipped in a battery of potentially lethal chemicals.

Most of the toxic assault takes place in the waterlogged savannah surrounding the capital of Colombia, the world's second-largest cut-flower producer, after the Netherlands. It produces 62 percent of all flowers sold in the United States.

With 110,000 employees -- many of them single mothers -- and annual exports of $1 billion, the industry provides an important alternative to growing coca, the source of cocaine. But these economic gains come at a cost to workers' health and Colombia's environment, consumer advocates say.

The United States requires imported flowers to be bug-free, but unlike edible fruits and vegetables they are not tested for chemical residues.

The tropical climate that drew US flower growers to Colombia and neighboring Ecuador is a haven for pests. So growers facing stiff competition from emerging flower industries in Africa and China apply pesticides and fungicides, some of which have been linked to elevated rates of cancer and neurological disorders and other problems. Colombia's flower exporters association responded by launching Florverde, which has certified 86 of its 200 members for taking steps to improve worker safety. Florverde says its members have cut pesticide use 38 percent since 1998.

Nevertheless, 36 percent of the toxic chemicals applied by Florverde farms in 2005 were listed as extremely or highly toxic by the World Health Organization.

A survey of 84 farms between 2000 and 2002 found only 16.7 percent respected pesticide manufacturer recommendations to prevent workers for 24 hours from re entering greenhouses sprayed with the most toxic of pesticides.

Causal links between chemicals and individual illnesses are hard to prove. But the Harvard School of Public Health examined 72 children ages 7-8 in Ecuador whose mothers were exposed to pesticides during pregnancy and found they had developmental delays of up to four years on aptitude tests. "We're finding out these pesticides are more dangerous than we ever thought before and more toxic at lower levels," said Philippe Grandjean, who led the 2006 Harvard study.

Producers say they would love to go organic, especially given the high costs of pesticides. But their risks include infestations and stiff competition from growers in Africa and China.

"The biggest hurdle to going organic is that once you're there you have to be prepared to lose your crop," said John Amaya, president of Dole Food's Miami-based flower unit.