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...
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."
"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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
You can find the MSDS from Safe Work Australia here:
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.
Use floral foam in a well ventilated environment.
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.
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.