The unknown dangers of toxic floral foam (Oasis)

You're at a hospital to visit your sick nan or meet your friend's newborn for the first time and you want to buy them a special something.

"Everyone loves flowers..." you think.

So you stop in at the hospital florist and there's an array of pre-made flower arrangements to choose from. Most of them are flowing out of boxes.

You wonder how the flowers survive and stay upright in those boxes.

They're in that moist green foamy stuff... or "floral foam" - invented and made popular in the fifties by a company called Smithers-Oasis. You buy one for your sick nan or take it to the room of a newborn that has never been exposed to the harsh chemicals of the modern world. Everyone in that room breathes in or potentially touches poison coming from a little box of green foam.

When I first discovered about a year ago what this stuff was actually made of, I was shocked. Fifty percent of an Australian floristry course is working with a base medium ie. floral foam, and I'd say 95 percent of current florists use it in their shops or wedding work daily. Sure it saves time and makes the flowers last longer (though not longer than if they were in regular fresh water) but in the long run it's bad for florists AND consumers.

At the time I could find hardly any information about it and it seemed like no one was even aware of its toxicity. Most people who come into my shop aren't aware of it. This is because it's been cleverly marketed as being an eco-friendly product. It has been marketed so well that even established florists are generally not aware of this. It's not a conspiracy, it's just humans being dodgy and greedy. The only reason I found out was because all the dust the dry foam created felt horrible on my hands, made my nose start to run and itch; and so I wanted to know if the dust was hazardous. I was still healing from a couple of surgeries, so I was particularly sensitive to allergens. So I went out of my way to research it.

Oasis is apparently top of the range for floral foam products. Premium Florist Choice Floral Foam has been known to cause cut flower stem burn in the past, however its quality has supposedly improved. All floral foam products are still made with the same chemicals, so it doesn't really matter which brand you go for. 

Oasis is made with OASIS® Floral Foam Maxlife. Floral foam is an open cell plastic. It is a green fine-celled thermoset phenolic plastic foam. It contains many hazardous substances including formaldehyde smoke, oxides of carbon, phenol, cresols, xylenols, and sulfur dioxide. It may be irritating to eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Prolonged exposure may cause cancer. This product appears to be very unsafe and as florists we are supposed to be using it all the time.

The toxicity information is now readily available on the Australian Oasis website (it wasn't a year ago) however on the American version it's still a bit of a secret... 

Because we have manufacturing facilities around the world which differ, please contact your local Smithers-Oasis office for this information."
Yeah and they will totally get back to you.
 

Last year it was still being marketed as being bio-degradable. On the Oasis website, the product was 100% certified biodegradable within 567 days. Just a quick look at the MSDS will tell you this is not true. 

It states that “this formulation has not been tested for environmental effects. It is a thermoset plastic and is not biodegradable.” It is not evident if this information has changed since the document was prepared in 2005. As a plastic, it is a product of the oil industry. They suggest recycling the floral foam and using it as a soil conditioner, however this doesn’t seem like it would be a safe or healthy option, given the amount of hazardous chemicals it contains.

A quick Google search and a well-known international floral sundries wholesaler (with a Sydney outlet) has now added what seems like a personal disclaimer to the Material Safety Data Sheet on their website. I won't post it here because there are so many resellers that I'd rather just out Mr Smithers and get him to invent a base medium that won't slowly kill us.

Straight from Section 7 of the MSDS:

"Foam stored in stagnant or hot enclosures may result in off gassing of residual formaldehyde gas. Wash thoroughly after handling. Observe good personal and industrial hygiene procedures. When foam is soaked or used in water, some low levels of residual formaldehyde may accumulate in tub water. Repeated skin immersion in water containing formaldehyde has caused skin rashes, particularly in sensitive persons. It is recommended that impervious latex or chemical resistant gloves be worn and water tubs be emptied regularly."

Oasis and resellers don't even include this safety sheet with A SINGLE FLORAL FOAM PRODUCT ANYWHERE - and I was buying quite a lot before I read it. Florists buy boxes of this stuff weekly. Safety glasses are recommended to be worn while handling it. Have you ever seen a florist wear goggles?

Sure it revolutionised the floristry industry, but at what cost? So that florists can get cancer or so that consumers can have babies with deformities due to the toxic chemicals that it contains?

Their environmental statement is a complete lie:

"Over the years, we have worked hard to lessen our footprint on the planet."

Lies.

"When it comes to the environment, our actions have always been to align ourselves with all local regulatory requirements."

Australia doesn't want your toxic plastic in our bodies, in our land or in our waters.    

Cheers Smithers... looks like you've taken a page out of Mr Burns' book. I'm sure my customers will be happy to wait an extra 5 or 10 minutes for me to put together a non-toxic arrangement that would be just as pretty, if not more so.

 

Recommendations:

My first shop has only been open just over a month and I made a conscious decision recently to not use floral foam at all - in my shop or for weddings. In the first week I thought "oh maybe I'll just make one arrangement in foam". So I did. It was pretty and I purposely didn't sell it. I felt guilty even touching the foam. Ignorance really is bliss. I was almost swayed but I've decided to take the commercial/business risk and follow my beliefs. Stick to your guns, because if we all do it, that's when it will make a difference. 

If you're a florist, you may wish to seriously rethink the use of floral foam in your shop or freelance work. Use alternatives to floral foam such as aspen wood shavings, excelsior, curly willow, moss, hay, chicken wire, branches, pebbles, sand, gravel in the base of a vase. I'll do a blog post shortly on safe and sustainable alternatives to floral foam. Still in discovery mode myself. Let's go back to the good-old days of floristry before floral foam. 

If they are not already so, please make your local florist aware of the toxicity of floral foam, especially if they are still selling it (which the majority are).

Formaldehyde is a priority chemical for Safe Work NSW. 

"The NSW Work health and safety roadmap has a target of a 30 per cent reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, which comprises a reduction in exposures to hazardous chemicals and materials. An initial list of 100 priority chemicals was developed based on national and international sources. This list was further refined using the following criteria: toxicity rating, exposure potential, estimated quantities used and potential number of workers using these chemicals. Formaldehyde ranked the highest based on these criteria."

You can email them at contact@safework.nsw.gov.au or phone 13 10 50 to find out more information.

My next step is to contact the relevant NSW Government bodies and I'll keep you updated! Feel free to do the same and share the results of your findings.

In the meantime please spread the word! xo

  

 

References/Further Reading:

You can find the MSDS from Safe Work Australia here:

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/898205_195723f870af4af5babdd47c476f79d2.pdf

***

http://www.fdionline.net/fdi/public/files/msds/SO-Oasis_Floral_Foam_2009.pdf

https://www.smithersoasis.com/sustainability-program/environmental-statement/

https://www.oasisfloral.com.au/material-safety-data-sheets

https://www.koch.com.au/page/oasis-msds

http://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/health-and-safety/safety-topics-a-z/hazardous-chemical/popover-content/formaldehyde

http://www.gorgeousandgreen.com/msds-floral-foam/

Image from www.koch.com.au

 ***

Oasis MSDS (the basic one)

Material Safety Data Sheet

 

GENERAL INFORMATION MATERIAL SAFETY DATA SHEET (MSDS)

Floral foam is an open cell plastic. It is a green fine-celled thermoset phenolic plastic foam.

It contains formaldehyde, carbon black, proprietarty acid catalysts, proprietarty sulfactant and barium sulphate.

Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde and carbon black may cause cancer. The concentration of these ingredients in foam are very small.

It is a degradable plastic (eventually will break down to dust) but NOT biodegradable (completely break down to its natural form).

Some of these ingredients may be harmful to the environment.

VENTILATION

Use floral foam in a well ventilated environment.

STORAGE

Store in a cool, dry well ventilated area, out of direct sunlight. Foam stored in stagnant or hot enclosures may result in off-gassing of residual formaldehyde gas.

FIRE WARNING

Finished foam will support combustion if it is ignited by direct contact with an open flame or exposed to temperatures in the range of 300C.

Do not put foam into a microwave as it will burn after an extended period of time. Combustion occurs at the centre of the brick and due to the insulating effect of the foam, can proceed unnoticed until an appreciable heat build up occurs.

EXPOSURE TO FLORAL FOAM

When being exposed to or using floral foam, the two main concerns to consider are contact with the foam and inhalation of the dust.

Possible outcomes: Using floral foam may cause irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.

Respiratory protection: If dust is excessive, a dust mask is recommended. Use floral foam in a well ventilated environment.

Inhalation care: Remove from exposure to fresh air. If breathing has stopped, give artificial respiration. Oxygen may be given if breathing is difficult. Get medical attention.

Acute: Dust or fumes may cause irritation to the nasal passages, lacrimation, olfactory changes, and pulmonary changes.

Inhalation of heptane fumes may irritate the respiratory tract producing light headedness, dizziness, muscle incoordination, CNS depression and narcosis.

Chronic: Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde and/or carbon black may cause cancer.

Eye protection: If dust is excessive, safety glasses are recommended. Use floral foam in a well ventilated environment.

Eye contact care: Flush thoroughly with water for 15 minutes, occasionally lifting the upper and lower lids, until no evidence of the material remains. Get medical attention if irritation develops. If wearing contact lens, remove immediately and flush eyes as above.

Acute: Contact may be irritating.

Chronic: May cause conjunctivitis.

CONTACT WITH FOAM

Skin protection: Use barrier cream or choose appropriate protective gloves. Wash thoroughly after handling. Observe good personal and industrial hygiene procedures.

When foam is soaked or used in water, some low levels of residual formaldehyde may accumulate in tub water. Repeated skin immersion in water containing formaldehyde has caused skin rashes, particularly in sensitive persons.

It is recommended that impervious latex or chemical resistant gloves be worn and water tubs be emptied regularly.

Skin contact care: Wash affected area with soap and water until no evidence of the material remains. Get medical attention if irritation develops.

Acute: May cause irritation.

Chronic: May cause dermatitis. Frequent or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can cause hypersensitivity leading to contact dermatitis.

Ingestion: Do not induce vomiting. Treat symptomatically and supportively. If a large quantity is ingested, get medical attention since there could be a problem with physical blockage.

Acute: May cause mouth irritation due to local pH effect. Swallowing formaldehyde may cause violent vomiting and diarrhea.

Aspiration of heptane into lungs can produce severe lung damage.

Chronic: Prolonged exposure may cause symptoms similar to acute effects.


Share this post


Leave a comment

Note, comments must be approved before they are published

20 comments

  • Hi everyone, thank you for your comments over the last few years. The response to my article was amazing. I can’t seem to reply to individual comments so they will now be moderated as the article is gaining traction again. Please note I wrote this article in early 2018 – the information was 100% accurate then. Pretty sure it still is. It caught the interest of notable Australian newspapers but still there is not enough awareness. I am sorry to hear about florists’ struggles and health problems with the foam. There are ways to help this please contact me.

    I’m not a chemist so I can’t claim to know about the production process of formaldehyde in floral foam. Perhaps it is ‘locked in’ to a new molecule at production (perhaps it isn’t, feel free to let me know specifics) but being very water soluble, what happens when the florist puts the foam in water (the whole point of its existence)? Melamine plates don’t have fugitive dust and don’t break down in the presence of water.

    Although this is an American product, Australian laws are more stringent than North American laws in terms of labelling etc, but floristry seems to me a very uncontrolled industry and this foam has just seemed to pass by inconspicuously for years. I like to believe humans are inherently good so I’d like to hope Smithers didn’t intentionally create a harmful product, they just didn’t know any better back then (I HOPE!). Much like how no one used to wear seatbelts while driving.

    I will do a blog post on this but in terms of quick tips for alternatives – for boxed arrangements I used scrunched chicken wire (in water) in a container to hold the flowers in place. Flowers go through the holes in the wire. For wedding installations I use longer lasting foliage and flowers that don’t need to be in water and I will cable tie them. I give my clients alternative arrangements that will look just as good and make a point of telling them I don’t use floral foam. If they need water (and this is what I do with all my bouquet deliveries) I will put them in water soaked tissue or paper towel in a (certified) biodegradable bag wrapped in newspaper to stop leakage. I also don’t use cellophane or plastic bags if I can help it. I will go into wedding options soon.

    If you would like to contact me direct – please message me on Instagram @riverwolfxo

    Cheers x

    • Riverwolfxo
  • Don’t forget that two dangerous chemicals combined, can make one safe chemical.
    If the production process is well controlled, the formaldehyde will be 100% ‘locked into’ the new molecule.
    Melamin breakfast plates and mugs (unbreakable plates for hiking and camping) are chemically very similar to floral foam. Melamin also is made with formaldehyde. But it’s completely safe to eat from. Not to eat it, of course.

    • Lima
  • I have been using oasis floral foam for 26 years . Not once have I seen a warns no label on the boxes . I just looked at the box I have right now and nothing but
    Instructions on soaking is on the box? Isn’t that neglectful and illegal ?

    • Crystal Gray
  • Your information seems inaccurate

    Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for Oasis® Grower Foams

    https://www.hydrofarm.com/downloads/fc/SDS%20for%20Grower%20Foams%20as%20an%20Article%205-28-15%20Rev_6246.pdf

    • August Palace
  • I received an arrangement that when broken down, revealed a granular-like media that looked like it was a granular plastic. With all the micro-plastic in the news, I thought I’d try to find out what these florists are told was save to use.

    • C.A.T.