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Daily News Blog

09
Jan

Field Study of Bumble Bees Finds Exposure to Chemical Mixtures, High Hazard, Flawed Regulation

a bumble bee

(Beyond Pesticides, January 9, 2024) A “landscape-level” study finds that typical risk assessment studies used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and European regulators fail to “safeguard bees and other pollinators that support agricultural production and wild plant pollination.” The study, published in Nature (November 2023), evaluates the health of bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) as a sentinel species placed in 106 agricultural landscapes across Europe. The authors’ conclusions challenge “the current assumption of pesticide regulation—that chemicals that individually pass laboratory tests and semifield trials are considered environmentally benign”—calling into question EPA’s persistent failure to adequately regulate mixtures of chemicals to which organisms are exposed in the real world.

This study adds to the body of science on pesticide mixtures adversely affecting bee and pollinator health. See here, here, and here. The failure to capture real-world exposure to pesticide mixtures in its regulatory assessments extends to EPA’s systemic failure to evaluate a range of serious adverse impacts, as noted by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) report. And, aquatic environments also have documented mixtures of pesticides, with the U.S. Geological Survey finding 90 percent of water samples containing at least five or more different pesticides.

“We can take no comfort in a regulatory system that continuously ignores, despite a plethora of studies over decades, the reality of pesticide exposure and adverse effects, yet continuously claims to the public that pesticides are adequately regulated, and business-as-usual dependency on pesticides is just fine,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “This latest study in Nature reminds us yet again, at the beginning of this new year, that we are not doing enough to expedite and escalate the transition to organic land management,” he continued.

The study found a combination of insecticides and fungicides, including ten compounds found in colony pollen stores, which the authors consider to present the highest risk, based on acute toxicity. The ten pesticides (nine insecticides and one fungicide) include indoxacarb, spinosad, chlorpyrifos-ethyl, deltamethrin, dimethoate, imidacloprid, cyfluthrin, dithianon, etofenprox, and chlorpyrifos-methyl. Concern about impacts on bees extends beyond acute effects to a range of adverse impacts, including disorientation, other sublethal effects, reproductive effects and development delays, and vulnerability to disease and mite infestation.

The study authors, Charlie Nicholson, PhD (post-doctoral fellow at Lund University, Lund, Sweden), et al., show a reduction in “bee colony performance.” This is especially true in what the authors call “simplified landscapes,” characterized by a predominance of non-flowering plants, “potentially stressing colonies and interacting with pesticide effects.” The authors conclude, “Our results show that ambitious sustainability goals related to pesticide reduction—objectives of the COP 15 meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity and the European Farm to Fork strategy—would benefit bee populations and potentially the pollination services they provide.

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the international legal instrument for “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.” It has been ratified by 196 nations—all the members of the United Nations except the United States and the Vatican. The CBD includes 21 action targets to be achieved by 2030, including reducing pesticide use by two-thirds, eliminating plastic waste, and “fully integrating biodiversity values into policies, regulations, planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies, accounts, and assessments of environmental impacts at all levels of government and across all sectors of the economy, ensuring that all activities and financial flows are aligned with biodiversity values.”

In a 2017 Science magazine article, “Toward pesticidovigilance,” authors Alice Milner, PhD, professor in the Department of Geography at the University of London, Surrey, and Ian Boyd, PhD, professor in the School of Biology, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, argue, “Without knowledge of safe environmental limits, the total pesticides used—and therefore the total environmental dose—is governed by market demand rather than by a limit on what the environment can endure.” Standard toxicity tests on individual pesticides, according to the authors, is of “limited use” when considering wide, “diffuse environmental effects that arise from ecosystem connectivity at a landscape scale.” The study in Nature adds to the empirical evidence of devastation wrought by pesticides and the ineffectiveness of current European as well as U.S. regulatory approaches. 

Beyond Pesticides has agreed with the conclusion of Drs. Milner and Boyd that there is a lack of “effective global governance of pesticides and their use” and advocates for the urgent need to adopt organic land management practices in agricultural and nonagricultural settings, including an immediate ban, like in France, on the use of lawn and landscape pesticides in both public and private areas frequently used by the public. 

The failure of EPA to consider the effect of pesticide mixtures in the environment extends to the formulation of pesticide products. While the Nature study identifies active pesticide ingredients, advocates and scientists have long asked EPA to evaluate and regulate full formulations of pesticides. Last year, EPA rejected a citizen petition filed in 2017 requesting that the agency evaluate complete formulations of pesticide products, not just the ingredients the manufacturer claims attack the target pest (so-called “active” ingredients). The citizen petition [see more background] was followed by a lawsuit for the same purpose in 2022.

Because of the three existential crises of health threats, biodiversity collapse, and the climate emergency, Beyond Pesticides has called for a broad phase out of all petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers and a shift to organic land management by 2032.

For more information on hazards and alternatives, see Beyond Pesticides, Gateway on Pesticide Hazards and Safe Pest Management, the Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database, and the Organic Agriculture webpage. For communities that would like to partner with Beyond Pesticides in shifting community land management to organic, see Parks for a Sustainable Future.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Pesticide use negatively affects bumble bees across European landscapes; Toward pesticidovigilance

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