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Neonicotinoid: Worldwide Use of This Pesticide Is Lethal to Birds, Bees, Aquatic Life

Insecticide Toxicity

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study conducted by a world-renowned environmental toxicologist concludes that neonicotinoid pesticides are highly toxic to birds and aquatic systems.
  • As a result of the study, the American Bird Conservancy has called for a ban on the use of neonicotinoids as seed treatments and has asked the EPA to suspend registration approvals until an independent study can be conducted into the effects of these chemicals on birds, land and water invertebrates, and other wildlife.
  • The ABC report points to outdated, scientifically unsound testing methods as the reason EPA risk assessments have significantly underestimated the toxicity of neonicotinoids. For example, risk assessments underestimate acute risk up to 10 fold for birds other than mallard ducks and bobwhites, two of the most commonly tested species.

By Dr. Becker

Back in the 1990’s, in response to pesticide resistance and health concerns related to existing chemical pesticides, neonicotinoid insecticides became popular on a global scale. Today, neonicotinoids, which are nicotine-like chemicals, are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. In fact, it’s hard to find pest control products that don’t contain at least one neonicotinoid insecticide.

American Bird Conservancy Calls for Ban

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), a leading bird conservation organization in the U.S., has recently called for a ban on the use of neonicotinoids as seed treatments and deferment of all applications until independent studies can be conducted to determine the real effects of products containing the pesticide on birds, land and water invertebrates (animals without backbones), and other classes of wildlife.

The ABC’s call for a ban comes on the heels of a report, commissioned by the Conservancy, of 200 studies on neonicotinoids. The report’s author, environmental toxicologist Dr. Pierre Mineau, evaluated the effects of these substances on birds and aquatic systems, and also compared them with older pesticides. Dr. Mineau’s conclusion is that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to birds and the aquatic systems that sustain them.

According to Cynthia Palmer, ABC’s Pesticides Program Manager and co-author of the report:

“It is clear that these chemicals have the potential to affect entire food chains. The environmental persistence of the neonicotinoids, their propensity for runoff and for groundwater infiltration, and their cumulative and largely irreversible mode of action in invertebrates raise significant environmental concerns.”

Palmer continues:

“A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid -- called imidacloprid -- can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”

Outdated, Scientifically Unsound Contamination Testing Methods

Mineau’s report suggests that contamination levels of neonicotinoids in surface and ground water in the U.S. and worldwide are currently beyond the level known to kill many species of aquatic invertebrates.

The report also points to problems in how the EPA evaluates aquatic impact. The authors believe EPA risk assessments have significantly underestimated the danger as a result of “scientifically unsound, outdated methodology.”

According to the report, scientists with the EPA have continually documented problems involving the persistence, mobility and toxicity of neonicotinoids, yet the EPA persists in approving registrations for use of the pesticides in an ever-growing range of products. This has resulted in widespread use of the chemicals for crops and non-agricultural purposes.

Part of the reason for the EPA’s underestimation of the toxicity of neonicotinoids to birds is because the Agency’s methods don’t take into account the variation of toxicity from one species to the next. For example, risk assessments underestimate acute risk up to 10 fold for birds other than mallard ducks and bobwhites, two of the most commonly tested species.

Neonicotinoids Have Proved Toxic to Bees and Other Insects

Since a single neonicotinoid-contaminated seed can kill a bird, it’s crucial that products sold for home bird feeders are free of these chemicals. The ABC’s independent testing programs have been focused on older pesticides containing organophosphates and carbamates, but neonicotinoid testing will be part of future programs.

In addition, the ABC wants the EPA to require registrants of acutely toxic pesticides to develop the tools necessary to diagnose poisoned birds and other wildlife.

Neonicotinoids have proved toxic to bees and other insects. The significant risk to bees should not be underestimated, but the ABC report makes clear that the potential impact of neonicotinoids on the environment is a much bigger problem than bees. The report recommends the EPA increase its registration review of neonicotinoids to include birds, aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife.

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