By Dr. Mercola
With Valentine's Day just around the corner, flowers are probably on most people's minds. But did you know that the bouquet you're giving your sweetheart may be loaded with pesticides?
Many people get headaches around flowers and simply assume they're allergic. This might not necessarily be true, however. It could be that you're having a reaction to the chemical residues on the flowers. Flower growers are actually among the heaviest users of agricultural chemicals, including pesticides that are suspected of being among the most toxic.
The reason for this is that a shipment of flowers can easily be turned back from whence it came should the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service happen to find so much as a single pest in the shipment.1 The department is not equipped to test imported flowers for pesticide residues, however.
This issue is not new; it just hasn't gotten a lot of attention over the past decade. But testing conducted in the late 70s and again in the late 90s revealed this dark side of cut flowers. My personal recommendation—for all the reasons I'll be discussing in this article—is to forgo cut flowers altogether and plant your own using organic, untreated seeds.
Are Your Flower Beds Promoting or Killing Bees?
The reason for my recommendation to plant your own organic flowers is because the pesticide problem is not restricted to cut flowers—the majority of which, by the way, originate from South America, primarily Colombia (63 percent of US imports of flower stems), followed by Ecuador (23 percent).2
A recent pilot study3, 4 revealed that more than half of garden plants attractive to bees and sold at Home Depot and Lowe's are also pre-treated with pesticides that could be lethal to bees. This is of great concern, as bees are necessary for pollinating not only flowers but also food crops.
The study in question, co-authored by the Pesticide Research Institute, found that a variety of bee-friendly plants (i.e. garden plants that attract bees) sold at home gardening centers contained neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
Pre-treated plants included tomatoes, squash, salvia, and flowers that would be attractive to pollinators. According to Lisa Archer, director of the Food and Technology Program at Friends of the Earth:5
"Our investigation is the first to show that so called 'bee-friendly' garden plants contain pesticides that can poison bees, with no warning to gardeners.
Bees are essential to our food system and they are dying at alarming rates. Neonic pesticides are a key part of the problem we can start to fix right now in our own backyards."
There are about 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of food globally and, of these, 71 are pollinated by bees. In the US alone, a full one-third of the food supply depends on pollination from bees. Private and public gardens can either contribute to the perpetuation of this "bee holocaust," or help curb it.
To get the ball rolling in the right direction, I will be sending out a packet of Baker Creek Seeds, free with any domestic order from my online store, between February 10 and February 12. A total of 10,000 packets are available, consisting of a random mix of sunflower seeds, thyme, and bee balm, all of which attract bees to your garden. These seeds are untreated, open pollinated, non-hybrid, non-GMO and non-patented seeds.
Pesticide Poisoning in Florists and Growers
Returning to the issue of cut flowers for a moment, research published in 1979 highlighted the problem of pesticide poisoning from cut flowers. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health,6 was conducted following reports of 10 cases of organophosphate pesticide poisoning in florists. As a result, the researchers conducted a random-sample survey to assess the residual pesticide levels on flowers imported into the US via Miami, Florida. According to the authors:
"A sample of all flowers imported into Miami on three days... showed that 18 (17.7 percent) of 105 lots contained pesticide residue levels greater than 5 ppm, and that three lots had levels greater than 400 ppm... We examined 20 quarantine workers in Miami and 12 commercial florists exposed to contaminated flowers.
Occasional nonspecific symptoms compatible with possible organophosphate exposure were noted. This study documents a previously unrecognized potential source of occupational pesticide exposure and suggests that safety standards should be set for residue levels on cut flowers."
A 1990 study,7 looking at the prevalence of reproductive problems in Colombian workers exposed to pesticides while growing flowers, found that workers in the floriculture industry were exposed to 127 different types of pesticides. According to the study:
"The prevalence rates for abortion, prematurity, stillbirths, and malformations were estimated for pregnancies occurring among the female workers and the wives of the male workers before and after they started working in floriculture, and these rates were related to various degrees of exposure. A moderate increase in the prevalence of abortion, prematurity, and congenital malformations was detected for pregnancies occurring after the start of work in floriculture."
Fifteen years later, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research8 again assessed the risk factors associated with pesticide exposure among farmers of cut-flowers—this time in the Philippines. Thirty-two percent of the workers reported pesticide-related illnesses since starting work in the flower business, which typically centered around the eyes, ears, nose, and throat. The most commonly reported symptoms were weakness and fatigue, muscle pain, chills and fever, blurred vision, dizziness, and headache.
More Research Showing Health Effects of Cut Flower Pesticides
The Organic Consumers Association9 has compiled a list of research published prior to 2006, detailing the potential hazards associated with pesticide exposure from cut flowers, which includes an increased cancer risk. For example:
- A 2003 study published in Mutation Research10 found that more than 71 percent of cut flower growers around the world show genetic damage.
- Research published in the Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis11 journal found that DNA adducts, indicative of early-stage cancer, was present in 60 percent of longtime workers in the floriculturist industry.
- In 1999, a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine12 concluded that "among male floriculturist pesticide applicators, prostate cancer and testicular cancer are significantly elevated. Among females applicators, cervical cancer incidence is significantly increased."
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also tested rose samples purchased from American retailers in 1998.13, 14 Their tests showed the presence of a dozen different pesticides, including two "probable carcinogens"—one of which was present at a level 50 times higher than permitted in food. At the time, Richard Wiles, co-founder of EWG, said that:15
"There's a fair amount of pesticides on roses, whether they come from Colombia or California." He also stated:16 "We don´t want to be alarmist. But some children and people with chemical sensitivities could experience mild symptoms--sneezing or headaches, for example--that they might assume were simply an allergic reaction."
Wiles' recommendation back then, as mine is now, for avoiding this kind of pesticide exposure is to grow your own flowers using non-treated organic seeds, and not using pesticides known to be toxic to pollinators, animals, or humans, in your garden.
Organic Flowers Save Both Bees and Human Health
Pesticides have a dramatic impact on the health of our ecosystem. Neonicotinoids in particular are known to get into pollen and nectar, thereby posing a grave hazard to beneficial insects such as bees. Truly, the stakes couldn't be any higher, with at least one-third of the US food supply being dependent on these pollinators. Besides protecting bees, and by extension our food supply, avoiding pesticides from all sources is also really important for your health. Cut flowers have sailed under the radar for decades in this respect, but they can be a major source of pesticide exposure, especially if you buy cut flowers on a more regular basis, or work in the cut flower industry.
My personal recommendation is to forgo both cut flowers and pesticide-treated plants from garden centers like Home Depot and Lowe's. The ideal solution really is to grow your own from organic, untreated seed. (Again, the first 10,000 orders from my website, placed February 10-12, will receive one free packet of untreated, non-GMO Baker Creek Seeds.) I also urge you to sign your name to the letter to Home Depot and Lowe's on Friends of the Earth's Action page. Much can be done to protect bees across the nation, but we must ACT!
The report released by Friends of the Earth and its allies shows that more than half of the "bee-friendly" home garden plants found in garden centers like Home Depot and Lowe's are in fact toxic to bees, yet sold without any warning to gardeners. So please, join us in asking the CEOs of Lowe's and Home Depot, Robert Niblock and Frank Blake, to pull all bee-killing pesticides from their shelves and stop selling neonicotinoid-treated plants.
If you have your heart set on cut flowers, here are some resources that can help you find organically-grown bouquets. In the absence of organic certification, you can also look for fair trade certification, as fair trade programs pay greater attention to protecting worker's health and wellbeing, and typically use fewer or less pesticides. Another alternative gift to flowers is high quality chocolate.