02/13/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Non-Toxic Love

I love you. On Valentine’s Day that declaration traditionally comes with a dozen red roses (my dad sends me a dozen roses on International Women’s Day, but I digress…). I love coming home to my bouquet of roses, deep red, fragrant, and complimented with delicate white baby’s breath flowers.

This week my son sent me a dozen roses – thank you, darling. I love you! The sticker on the delivery box said the flowers originated in either Ecuador or Colombia. That’s not surprising, because about 90 percent of roses, 98 percent of carnations, and 95 percent of chrysanthemums sold in the U.S. come from those two countries. (See here for details)

And, co-incidentally, I just returned from a wonderful vacation in Ecuador where in addition to kayaking some great whitewater (shout out to Small World Adventures – a rockin’ good time!) I spent a few days at the Santa Lucia Cloud Reserve enjoying dozens of different wild orchids, hummingbirds galore, pre-dawn Cock-of-the-Rock mating madness (it’s a bird, people), and churning our own sugar cane juice. The reserve is the creative brain-child of a dozen local families that together decided to transition from farming their land with harmful pesticides, to developing a stunningly beautiful eco-tourism haven that protects and promotes the mountain’s natural treasures. Family members that had formerly been poisoned with pesticides are now building cabins, guiding bird tours, and managing the business.

The Santa Lucia folks have it right! Growing flowers can be a very pesticide-intensive process, with severe health impacts to the greenhouse workers, mostly women of reproductive age.  While in Quito I took the opportunity to meet with experts that work with IFA (Corporación para el Desarrollo de la Producción y el Medio Ambi- ente Laboral; The Institute for the Development of Production and Work Environment). Their scientists published a study of Ecuadorean school-age children born to mothers that were working in flower greenhouses during their pregnancy, thus exposing their children pre-natally to harmful pesticides. The scientific team found evidence that the children exposed in the womb had lasting deficits in physical coordination, motor speed (tested by finger tapping) and cognitive impairments including poor visual memory recall, corresponding to a developmental delay of 1.5 to 2 years. Adverse health effects were not seen in the mothers, consistent with the understanding that early-life exposures to toxic chemicals including many pesticides can have lasting harmful effects, even at doses that do not produce effects in adults. The situation in Colombia is similar to Ecuador. (See 2008 review article here on health harms from exposures during early development).

There are flower production facilities in Ecuador and Colombia (and here in the U.S.) that are successfully reducing or eliminating their reliance on hazardous pesticides, taking precautions to prevent worker’s exposures, and even reducing water and energy use and increasing sustainable practices (See review article here by Smithsonian magazine). But finding the companies with these healthy sustainable practices can be difficult, and “green” type labels may not be verified or enforced.

So, what can you do? Consumer support for sustainable products will send the right signal to producers, even if the labels are not as reliable as we'd like. 

Also, the U.S. is a principal trading partner for both Colombia and Ecuador, and therefore our influence as both consumers and as congressional constituents is significant. The comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Colombia that came into force in 2012 is meant to encourage bilateral trade between these two countries, and includes both environmental and worker protection provisions.

You can contact your Congressional representatives to let them know that you enjoy flowers from Ecuador and Colombia, that you encourage sustainable agriculture practices that protect human health and the environment, and that you want to know how Congress is ensuring rigorous enforcement of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement worker and environment protections.

And, you can check out other eco-friendly Valentine’s Day gift suggestions from NRDC here.

Because love should be non-toxic!