By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Neonicotinoid pesticides, the ones so good at killing bees that they’ve been banned in the European Union, have been found in rivers and throughout watersheds in the Midwest, according to a study just released by the US Geological Survey (USGS).
The study, described as the “first broad-scale investigation of neonicotinoid insecticides” in the Midwest, has been making headlines this week.
There’s good news and bad news here. Now that we’ve driven the bees toward extinction, and understand that the chemicals we unleash into the environment can have widespread intended and unintended consequences, we’re paying a little more attention to these products.
Neonicotinoid is not just a funny word, it’s a threat to our water supply. The USGS study found neonicotinoids in all nine rivers it studied “including the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, that drain most of Iowa, and parts of Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.” That’s six states affected in the agricultural Midwest. And we’re worried. That’s actually the good news.
The bad news is that no one in our government undertook to study the extent of neonicotinoid runoff until 10 years after the EPA approved these chemicals for use in agriculture.
Ag chemicals have been fouling surface water since Rachel Carson sounded the alarm about DDT more than 50 years ago and authorities easily could have anticipated that neonicotinoids would do the same. The EPA approved clothianidin in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the USGS started its study, likely prompted by the profound collapse of our most-needed pollinators, honey bees, in the intervening years.
During those years, officialdom at first attributed the sudden decline of honey bees to a virus, then to a loss of land and to other factors, such as fatigue from being transported among farms. Finally, in the past couple years, government authorities conceded that the Colony Collapse Disorder zapping bees around the world is at least partly caused by neonicotinoid pesticides.
Neonics, which act as neurotoxins on insects, were designed to be safer than some old-style chemicals that had harsh effects on wildlife and vegetation, such as atrazine and DDT. These newer chemicals were supposed to be kinder to the environment because they were more contained. Neonicotinoids, applied via a seed coating, are internalized by crop plants, and don’t have to be sprayed around, though they can be used as foliar treatments and ground drenches.
But here’s the killer kicker: The plant itself, specifically its pollen, becomes toxic to insect predators. It emits a neurotoxin that kills them dead!
This internalized Raid, if you will, has devastated honey bees, according to some independent researchers. And um, yeah, plays a role in CCD, say less independent researchers.
The bees’ method of death certainly lines up with what could be expected from neonicotinoids. Researchers have observed that bees exposed to neonics become disoriented – as if they’d been poisoned by a neurotoxin, surprise! – and lose their way. When the worker bees fail to return home, the hive dies en masse.
Way back when, Rachel Carson noticed that the chemicals farmers were using, liberally, to tamp down on crop-eating insects were ripping through the ecosystem, paralyzing pretty songbirds like the American robin and killing dairy cows that drank from tanks of water contaminated by overspray.
Carson called BS on the stupidity of chemical farming.
But for many reasons (though mainly money), farmers and chemical companies kept this system going, simply changing the chemicals and expecting a different result.
Is it time yet to review the model? Organic farming works, yields are bountiful when it’s done right, and the soil gets better, not worse. This type of farming defines sustainability, preserves our future and some studies show it even provides more nourishing food. Bees thrive on organic farms, and keep the web of life strong.
Sound too crunchy and utopian for you? Perhaps you’d rather have a serving of imidacloprid with your morning coffee?
You can read the study summary, Neonicotinoid Pesticides Documented in Midwestern Streams at the USGS website.
The USGS found that the levels in streams it tested sometimes exceeded those determined to be toxic to aquatic life, though it noted that the EPA has deemed these chemicals to be A-OK for humans. Specifically the researchers said:
One of the chemicals, imidacloprid, is known to be toxic to aquatic organisms at 10-100 nanograms per liter if the aquatic organisms are exposed to it for an extended period of time. Clothianidin and thiamethoxam behave similarly to imidacloprid, and are therefore anticipated to have similar effect levels. Maximum concentrations of clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid measured in this study were 257, 185, and 42.7 nanograms per liter, respectively.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified all detected neonicotinoids as not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.