One of the Biggest Problems With Mother's Day Flowers

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mom holds beautiful bouquet of toxic roses in front of window

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A new study finds altered neurological performance in children during peak pesticide spraying for the Mother's Day flower harvest.

It’s a story seemingly straight from a Dickens’ novel or the dystopia playbook: Developing country douses itself in toxins to grow luxury gifts for moms in developed country – with a bonus twist, the toxins hurt the children where the goods are grown.


The country in this sad true tale is Ecuador, which is the world’s third largest producer of cut flowers. Growing mostly roses, and relying heavily on agricultural pesticides, the bulk of those roses will be heading to moms in the United States. Each year in The States we spend $7.5 billion on cut flowers; Mother’s Day is the second most popular occasion for flower sales after Christmas/Hanukkah. (Valentine’s Day comes in third.)

Researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, along with colleagues in Ecuador and Minnesota, discovered “altered short-term neurological behaviors” in children tested prior to peak Mother's Day flower production and within 100 days after harvest. And these are children who did not work in agriculture but who simply lived in agricultural regions. The research has been published in the journal NeuroToxicology.

"Our findings are among the first in non-worker children to suggest that a peak pesticide use period (the Mother's Day flower production) may transiently affect neurobehavioral performance," said first author Jose R. Suarez-Lopez, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

"Children examined sooner after the flower harvest displayed lower performance on most measures, such as attention, self-control, visuospatial processing (the ability to perceive and interact with our visual world) and sensorimotor (eye-hand coordination) compared to children examined later in a time of lower flower production and pesticide use."

"This discovery is novel because it shows that pesticide spray seasons can produce short-term alterations in neurobehavioral performance in addition to the long-term alterations that have been previously described. This is troublesome because the altered mental functions observed are essential for children's learning, and in May-July, students typically take their end-of-year exams. If their learning and performance abilities are affected in this period, they may graduate from high school with lower scores which may hinder their ability to access higher education or obtain a job."

Meanwhile, floriculture is an important source of income for people in tropical climates – so what to do? Fortunately there is progress being made in moving away from chemical-intensive flower growing. The Rainforest Alliance, for example, has been working with the Sustainable Agriculture Network to develop strict sustainability requirements for flower farms in South America. Farms that adhere to these requirements actively protect worker health, minimize agrochemical use, and work to keep soil and waterways clean. So investing in sustainable and/or certified flowers is one way to keep mom in roses while not hurting the kids who work or live nearby flower farms.