December 1, 2008 The Pump Handle 3Comment

by revere, cross-posted at Effect Measure

A story on the wires about a paper in the journal Epidemiology this month (November) confirms what other work has shown: those beautiful flowers we buy in American florist shops have an added price attached to them, paid by the children of Central America. Epidemiology is one of the top tier journals in the field of epidemiology, but I don’t have access to my copy, which is at work (and I’m not), so I’m working off wire service copy (Reuters Health). From what I know of the subject, however, the account is likely accurate. Here’s the gist:

In a study from Ecuador, babies and toddlers born to women employed in the cut-flower industry during pregnancy showed poorer communication and fine motor skills than children whose mothers were not flower workers.These children were also nearly five times as likely to have vision problems, the study team found.

Pesticides are used heavily in the cut-flower industry, especially organophosphates, carbamates, and dithiocarbamates, and animal studies suggest exposure to these chemicals before birth may impair neurological development both in the womb and in infancy and childhood. (Anne Harding, Reuters Health)


Alexis J. Handal and her colleagues at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque used neurodevelopmental testing on 121 children, ages 3 to 23 months, to see if there were differences in fine motorl skills, communication and other neuropsych measures. 52 of the 121 children had mothers who worked in the cut-flower industry while the children were in utero. Test results for communication and fine motor skills were lower for the cut-flower parented children. Decreases of 8% and 13% on scores are reported, but what that translates into is not given in the news articles. However these tests are fairly crude measures of neurodevelopment, so the significant differences seen in this study are worrisome. A more conventional and understandable measure, visual acuity problems, were almost 5 times as likely in the exposed children.

The authors note that working in the cut-flower industry pays a decent wage, although the work hours are long and physically arduous, the more so for pregnant women. It is still not clear the extent to which pesticides or the difficult work conditions are responsible for the observed results, which seem, like the flowers, pretty clear cut.

The cut-flower industry is an important part of the economies of a number of Central South American countries, like Ecuador and Columbia and it employs a disproportionate number of women in their reproductive years.

Another reason to amend trade laws to assure fair labor standards. Few of us would trade brightening our house with flowers from the florist for the health of a child.

3 thoughts on “Fresh flowers and spoiled lives

  1. This article is very thin on data. I don’t believe you can draw a correlation of this magnitude with out isolating numerous other variables. It is unfortunate that this propaganda for political purposes has a forum. I grew up in the flower industry as a child working in our families greenhouses, greenhouses that produce the very same cut flowers spoken of here. I am very familiar with the cut flower industry of Latin America and it has provided tremendous opportunities for the people of these countries. This industry has truly enriched their lives. Don’t believe the glass is half empty. In this case the children have a full glass, thanks to the cut flower industry!

    PS. Proper spelling is Colombia!

  2. Well, Paul, there is well documented exposure to neurotoxins and neurodevelopmental toxins in this occupation. There is recognition in the post and the article that it is a good job from the economic point of view. This isn’t relevant to the risk assessment, however. The study is typical of occupational epidemiology and seems to be competently done. You cite no evidence except your personal experience and you cite not critique of the work itself, except you don’t believe it. You acknowledge you profit from the industry, so perhaps that affects your view? My wife loves flowers. She would like to know they were produced without harming anyone, however.

  3. Hi. Being a certified naturally grown specialty cut flower farmer in the northeast United States, I personally feel that globalized farming is out of touch with the consumer and commercialized-non organic farming, whether it’s flowers, vegetables, dairy, is intoxicating to the environment and the people who make these farms run. I’m not saying that individuals who work on these farms, like the women mentioned above, are any less hardworking then people who work on organic farms, but have these women or men been educated on the harmful toxins they are involved with everyday? Have these huge commercial farms every thought of going organic? It’s time we educate farmers on healthy farm practices for us, the workers and the environment. Support small scale farmers. Know your food (or flowers) know your farmer!!! Buy local!! Buy organic!!!

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