Second, I should warn you that if you continue reading, you’ll be begin to wonder how we’re all not dead yet. Thanks to Grist’s Tom Philpott, I was just alerted to the leaked EPA documents that show the agency’s fumbling approval of a broadly used, very toxic pesticide.
It’s been on the market since 2003–bringing in $262 million in sales in 2009 alone says Philpott–but a key study on the pesticide’s safety was not produced until 2007. And now, EPA scientists have in essence repudiated that study’s findings, though EPA officials didn’t think the public needed to know that.
A little while ago, I went to see a documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Colony, at the Northwest Film Forum. While it was really about beekeeping as a vanishing way of life, the film did track the efforts of David Mendes, the president of the American Beekeeping Federation, to lobby a German pesticide maker, Bayer, into researching more carefully the impact of their product Poncho (clothianidin). Mendes’ fixation on pesticides was surprising to me because the word was that CCD was probably related to a fungus and viruses. (Mendes argues that if you poison people, we’ll be more likely to pick up odd funguses and viruses, too.)
I have to admit, when I first heard Bayer, I thought it was odd the aspirin people were implicated in this, but of course they are a huge company, and crop sciences is another division. In any event, Mendes’ interest in their pesticide Poncho becomes clearer once you know that it’s absolutely clear that it’s toxic to honey bees; the only question is, how would the bees be coming into contact with it?
Bees come into contact with a lot: a study on pesticide burden conducted across 23 states in 2007-08 found that:
Almost 60% of the 259 wax and 350 pollen samples contained at least one systemic pesticide, and over 47% had both in-hive acaricides fluvalinate and coumaphos, and chlorothalonil, a widely-used fungicide. In bee pollen were found chlorothalonil at levels up to 99 ppm and the insecticides aldicarb, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos and imidacloprid, fungicides boscalid, captan and myclobutanil, and herbicide pendimethalin at 1 ppm levels.
For context, another study analyzed bee deaths over the same period, finding “A total loss of 35.8% of colonies was recorded; an increase of 11.4% compared to last year.”
Beekeepers, naturally, would prefer to have had Bayer rule out the possibility of pesticide transmission from the beginning. But the EPA, feeling more grandly generous, gave Poncho a “conditional” permit in 2003 for use on canola, cereals, corn, sunflowers, and sugar beets, and gave them until December 2004 to produce a study showing that the systemic pesticide, known to be toxic to bees, would not be transmitted to bees in harmful amounts via pollen. Bayer got right on…applying for an extension.
As mentioned, it wasn’t until August 2007 that they produced a study giving the all clear, which the EPA accepted. (When the NRDC asked for a copy of the study, the EPA never got around to providing it. The NRDC filed of Freedom of Information request. The EPA refused to hand over the study. The NRDC filed a suit and won. As you know, when your mission is environmental protection, the last thing you want to do is let one of the nation’s leading environmental groups check your work. Let’s pause to remember the Bush years with extra fondness.)
The study was criticized roundly as flawed outside the EPA (for one thing, the control bees would have been able to forage in the same pesticide-carrying fields as the test bees), but the smoking gun has now arrived in the form of EPA scientists downgrading the Bayer-supported study and requesting that better research be done. They wrote in a memo on Bayer’s request to expand clothianidin’s use for cotton and mustard seeds:
This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of Clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggests the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.
Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects. An incident in Germany already illustrated the toxicity of clothianidin to honey bees when allowed to drift off-site from treated seed during planting.
(And just in case you’re feeling unsympathetic to bees: “The major risk concerns are with aquatic free-swimming and benthic invertebrates, terrestrial invertebrates, birds, and mammals.” You know who’s a mammal? You.)
The Pesticide Action Network and Beyond Pesticides — along with beekeepers — feel like this should be enough to pressure the EPA to ban clothianidin. Europe has been moving more swiftly in this area, despite Bayer being a German company, but enjoy this wonderfully qualified statement on the EPA site: “To EPA’s knowledge, none of the incidents that led to suspensions have been associated with Colony Collapse Disorder.”
And finally, beekeeper Tom Theobald urges you to remember the big picture: “In an apparent rush to get products to the market, chemicals have been routinely granted ‘conditional’ registrations. Of 94 pesticide active ingredients released since 1997, 70% have been given conditional registrations, with unanswered questions of unknown magnitude.” That is, 70 percent of those known toxic chemicals have been allowed to be used without full-scale safety tests.
Again, that’s the work of the Environmental Protection Agency. Protection. You thought I was just being snarky at the top, didn’t you?