(Beyond Pesticides, August 4, 2015) Nearly every food available for purchase at the U.S. Congressional Dining Hall contains detectable levels of neonicotinoids (neonics), chemical insecticides implicated in the global decline of wild and managed pollinators. The results of a new study, performed by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reveals how reliance on these toxic chemicals can both directly and indirectly affect our food supply. Authors of the study hope the results will build Congressional support for the Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2015, which would suspend the use of neonics while an independent review analyzes the chemical’s effects to birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.
Researchers for the study conducted two rounds of food testing, the first in January, and the second in May 2015. Approximately half of samples were taken from the House Longworth Cafeteria and half from Senate Dirksen Cafeteria in Washington, D.C. In total, 66 food samples were tested for the presence of neonicotinoids. Of that, 60, or 91% of samples tested positive for one neonic, and 47, or 71% of samples had two or more neonics present. “We were surprised to find that most foods contained multiple neonicotinoids, with as many as five in samples of fresh-squeezed orange juice and green bell pepper,” said Cynthia Palmer, Director of Pesticides Science and Regulation for ABC.
Although the investigation was limited to fruits and vegetables at Congressional cafeterias, neonics are used on a wide range of crops, including soy, cotton, corn, canola, and sunflowers. However, studies continue to question the efficacy of these chemicals in pest control, showing no yield increases as a result of their use. Beyond food production, neonics are frequently detected in nursery plants sold at big box home and garden centers throughout the United States. And recent research also produced by the Harvard School of Public Health finds these chemicals to be ubiquitous in our environment during flowering season, present in a vast majority of pollen samples taken throughout the state of Massachusetts.
Although the impacts these chemicals have on birds (a single kernel of neonic-coated corn is enough to kill a songbird), honey bees, wild pollinators, and other beneficial organisms is clear and has been well-researched, data on the impact of these pesticides to human health is still not well understood. Studies that have been performed do elicit cause for concern, however. An analysis from the European Food Safety Authority in 2013 identified concerns with regard to the impact of neonics on childhood brain and nervous system development. And, as the ABC study indicates, while none of the residues levels found in Congressional cafeteria food exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reference dose, or level which the agency considers acceptable based on laboratory studies, research from Japan indicates that adverse effects may occur at amounts lower than those EPA deems adequate. Moreover, thiacloprid, a common neonicotinoid, is considered “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” by EPA as a result of thyroid tumors in male rats, and ovarian tumors in mice tested in the laboratory.
“It is almost impossible to avoid eating foods that are contaminated with neonicotinoids in the cafeterias on Capital Hill. We can reasonably assume that the likelihood for humans to be exposed to neonicotinoids through dietary intakes is the same as for birds, bees, and other pollinators in the environment,” said Chensheng Alex Lu, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Research has found that bees prefer foods treated with neonicotinoid insecticides, but do members of Congress? Localities within the U.S., as well as other countries and regions throughout the world have taken action to restrict or eliminate the use of these pesticides. In 2013, the European Union imposed a moratorium on a number of agricultural uses of neonics. This decision will undergo review and analysis in late 2015. Earlier this year the Canadian province of Ontario implemented new rules aimed at curbing the acreage planted with neonic-coated seeds by 80% in the next two years. In the U.S., President Obama announced a National Pollinator Health Strategy in attempts to reverse pollinator losses, but the plan has been widely criticized by environmental health and beekeeper groups for not adequately addressing pollinator exposure to toxic pesticides. Hopes remain in Congress for the Saving America’s Pollinator’s Act of 2015, which would impose a suspension on the most toxic uses of neonics until a review can prove that the chemicals do not present a hazard to bees.
Take action by asking your member of Congress to support the Saving America’s Pollinator’s Act. To view which food crops have harmful pesticides used on them, view Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience webpage here. To avoid neonic chemicals in your food, seek out and purchase certified organic products, which never allow toxic synthetic insecticides, and take steps to improve soil and habitat for wildlife such as pollinators.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides