The year-round demand in North America for fresh vegetables, fruits, and flowers has fueled a booming export trade from Latin America and the Caribbean. But this economic success has come with a price: serious pesticide exposure for many workers who raise and handle these export crops. There is no better example of this than the flower industry, where remarkably high amounts of pesticides are applied, usually inside greenhouses.
Rose and carnation producers in Ecuador, for example, use an average of six fungicides, four insecticides, and three nematicides (nematode poisons), along with several herbicides. Many of these compounds are applied frequently, some daily, in order to chemically “sanitize” the greenhouses, which are particularly vulnerable to pest or disease epidemics. Moreover, since flowers are not edible, importers do not inspect them for pesticide residues, and producers thus have little incentive to minimize their use of pesticides.
The flower industry in Ecuador which has grown dramatically in the last decade is concentrated in the highland region, near Quito and the airport. Plantations have a sophisticated infrastructure that includes complex irrigation and drainage systems and electricity for night lighting. Production cycles, which are very labor intensive, are planned, timed, and executed to meet the high-quality standards and periodic demand of the North American market, with exports peaking during U.S. holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Colombian and Costa Rican flower plantations show similar patterns. In Costa Rica, for instance, greenhouse workers treat flowers and ornamental plants with extremely toxic insecticides and nematicides that include methyl parathion, terbufos, and aldicarb all compounds whose use in North America is restricted because of the health hazard they pose. A wide array of other pesticides with known health risks is also used. These include fungicides such as mancozeb and captan, which are both suspected carcinogens, and herbicides such as paraquat, which is extremely toxic through any route of exposure, whether absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or inadvertently ingested.
The danger of exposure to these substances is compounded by the type of setting in which they are applied and the frequency of application. Many of these chemicals are applied daily in the warm, poorly ventilated greenhouses, where high levels of toxic vapors can accumulate, and contact with pesticide residues on treated plants is hard to avoid.
Women are particularly subject to pesticide poisoning in Latin America’s export flower business because they often make up as much as 70 to 80 percent of the labor force. In addition to the direct threat of pesticide exposure, these workers’ health is also jeopardized by inadequate housing, poor diet, and the lack of public health services and education.
A study of 80 women working on flower plantations (and other export crop farms) in Ecuador revealed heavy exposure to organophosphates and carbamates, two classes of pesticides well known for their acute toxicity. The women complained of blurred vision, intolerance to light, headaches, and nausea, all typical symptoms of organophosphate and carbamate poisoning. Often, workers were expected to continue their tasks while pesticides were being applied near them a serious breach of safe practices.
The majority of women workers in this study received no training or information on pesticide use and the need for protective equipment. Some 40 percent of the workers interviewed received no protective equipment, and the rest only occasionally received gloves, boots, and, rarely, glasses. Even when they were given protective equipment, it was either inadequate or poorly maintained. Health and hygiene facilities on these plantations were also deficient. Only 5 percent of the workers interviewed received company-paid medical examinations.
In Colombia, conditions are similar, yet probably more serious, partly because the scale is multiplied. A study of some 8,900 workers on flower plantations near Bogota showed that they were exposed to 127 different types of pesticides. An estimated 20 percent of these pesticides were banned or unregistered in the United Kingdom or the United States. The surveyed workers suffered a variety of acute effects: nearly two thirds of the workers suffered from headaches, nausea, impaired vision, conjunctivitis, rashes, and asthma. They also suffered serious chronic effects, such as stillbirths, miscarriages, and respiratory and neurological problems.
Pressures to maximize output and speed exacerbate these problems, encouraging management to push workers beyond the limits of safety. Inadequate or below-minimum wages, poor living conditions, and lack of respect for laws governing maternity leave are also common. Workers’ attempts to organize and assert their rights have generally been met with reprimands and dismissals, because replacement workers are easy to find.
Some flower farms have improved occupational health conditions, partly in response to negative media attention or pressure from workers and environmental groups. In both Ecuador and Colombia, several flower companies now take workers’ blood samples to check for pesticide exposure, and some have improved medical services and provide masks and gloves for workers. However, many producers have not yet begun to take even these minimal steps, and the industry has yet to make worker safety a clear priority.
Adapted from: Lori Ann Thrupp, Bittersweet Harvests for Global Supermarkets: Challenges in Latin America’s Agricultural Export Boom (World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C., 1995).