Nicotine-related compounds called nicotinoids were initially introduced as a new form of pesticide in the 1990s, as widespread pest resistance rendered many older pesticides useless. Many seeds are now “pre-treated” with neonicotinoids, which are water-soluble and break down slowly in the environment.
Today, they are the most widely-used pesticides in the world. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pesticide that does not contain at least one neonicotinoid insecticide. In California alone, there are nearly 300 registered neonicotinoid products available.
The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the leading bird conservation organizations in the US, is now calling for a ban on the use of neonicotinoids as seed treatments, and wants all pending applications for neonicotinoid products to be suspended pending an independent review of the products’ effects on birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife.
As reported by the American Bird Conservancy1:
“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…”
ABC commissioned the world renowned environmental toxicologist Dr. Pierre Mineau to conduct the research, which resulted in a 100-page report2 titled The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds. Mineau’s report reviews 200 studies on neonicotinoids, including industry research obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act.
The report concludes that neonicotinoids “are lethal to birds and to the aquatic systems on which they depend.” Even more disturbing, contamination levels in both surface and ground water around the world are already beyond the threshold found to kill many aquatic invertebrates. According to this shocking toxicology assessment:
- A single kernel of corn treated with this type of pesticide can kill a songbird
- A single grain of wheat or canola treated with the neonicotinoids Imidacloprid can be fatal to a bird
- As little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season can affect a bird’s reproductive capability
EPA Accused of Failing to Adequately Assess Environmental Risks
Disturbingly, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not adequately assessed the toxicity of neonicotinoids. Part of the problem, according to the featured report, is that the EPA is “using scientifically unsound, outdated methodology that has more to do with a game of chance than with a rigorous scientific process.” This has led the agency to grossly underestimate the toxicity of these chemicals. Furthermore3:
“The report also charges that there is no readily available biomarker for neonicotinoids as there is for cholinesterase inhibitors such as the organophosphorous pesticides.
‘It is astonishing that EPA would allow a pesticide to be used in hundreds of products without ever requiring the registrant to develop the tools needed to diagnose poisoned wildlife. It would be relatively simple to create a binding assay for the neural receptor which is affected by this class of insecticides,’ said Dr. Mineau.”
Dr. Mineau urges the EPA to require pesticide registrants to also provide the diagnostic tools necessary to diagnose cases of wildlife poisonings. So far, neonicotinoids have garnered the most attention and criticism for their role in bee die-offs—a worldwide phenomenon that took off once these newer pesticides became widely used. As stated by ABC4:
“The serious risk to bees should not be understated, as one-third of the US diet depends on these insect pollinators. The ABC assessment makes clear, however, that the potential environmental impacts of neonicotinoids go well beyond bees.”
Link Between Neonicotinoids and Bee Die-Off is ‘Crystal Clear,’ Lawsuit Maintains
A general consensus among beekeepers is that the bee die-offs are most definitely related to toxic chemicals, and neonicotinoids in particular. The disappearance of bee colonies began accelerating in the United States shortly after the EPA allowed these new insecticides on the market in the mid-2000s. In May, beekeepers and environmental groups filed a lawsuitagainst the agency over its failure to protect bees from these toxic pesticides.
Meanwhile, France has banned Imidacloprid for use on corn and sunflowers after reporting large losses of bees after exposure to it. They also rejected Bayer´s application for Clothianidin, and other countries, such as Italy, have banned certain neonicotinoids as well.
Neonicotinoids are used on most of American crops, especially corn. As mentioned earlier, these chemicals are typically applied to seeds before planting, allowing the pesticide to be taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows. As a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant, and hence the danger to bees and other pollinating insects… Needless to say, since the chemical is taken up systemically through the plant, it could also pose potential health risks to anyone eating the plant since it cannot be rinsed off.
Neonicotinoids affect insects’ central nervous systems in ways that are cumulative and irreversible. Even minute amounts can have profound effects over time. One of the observed effects of these insecticides is weakening of the bee’s immune system. Forager bees bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it’s consumed by all of the bees. Six months later, their immune systems fail, and they fall prey to secondary, seemingly “natural” bee infections, such as parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria.
The EPA5 acknowledges that “pesticide poisoning” may be one factor leading to colony collapse disorder, yet they have been slow to act to protect bees from this threat. The current lawsuit may help spur them toward more urgent action, which is desperately needed as the food supply hangs in the balance.
In March, the EPA sent Jim Jones, overseer of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, to talk to California almond growers and beekeepers, as mass die-offs of bees were seriously threatening this year’s almond crop. But although beekeepers said Jones got the message that bees are in serious trouble, they were dismayed by the fact that he seemed more interested in finding new places for bees to forage rather than addressing the issue of toxic pesticides…
As usual, at the core of the problem is big industry, which is blinded by greed and enabled by a corrupt governmental system that permits the profit-driven sacrifice of our environment. Unfortunately, this motivation reflects an extreme shortsightedness about the long-term survival of the human race, as well as of our planet. Clearly, if the goal of pesticides is to increase food yield to more easily feed 7 billion human beings, this goal falls flat on its face if it leads to the collapse of our food chain.
Pesticides Again Tied to Parkinson’s Disease
A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Neurology6, examined data from 104 studies published between 1975 and 2011, in search for a potential link between pesticides and Parkinson’s disease. As many previous studies, it found one… Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder in which neurons in a region within your brain responsible for normal movement begin to die, causing the telltale shaking and rigidity associated with the disease. There’s currently no known cure, which makes preventing the disease all the more important. Mounting evidence suggests avoiding pesticides is an important part of prevention. As reported by Reuters7:
“In 2011, a study of US farm workers from National Institutes of Health found some pesticides that are known to interfere with cell function were linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease. Another study that was published in 2012 also reported that people with Parkinson’s disease were more likely to report exposure to pesticides, compared to people without the condition.”
In this latest analysis, exposure to pesticides was linked to a 58 percent increased risk of developing Parkinson’s. Some pesticides were clearly worse than others. Paraquat (a non-selective plant killer) and two fungicides, maneb and mancozeb, were found to double your risk. One of the study’s authors told Reuters that8:
“[T]he study’s results suggest that people should avoid contact with pesticides or – at least – wear proper protection when handling the chemicals. The use of protective equipment and compliance with suggested, or even recommended, preventive practices should be emphasized in high-risk working categories (such as farming).”
How Modern Farming Methods Have Led to Toxic Food Supplies
Chlorinated hydrocarbons, or organochlorines like DDT were developed after World War II and remained widely used in agriculture for pest and weed control until Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in 1962. That book is credited with beginning the modern environmental movement, and through the involvement of scientists and ordinary concerned citizens many of the organochlorines were later phased out of use, according to the conditions of the Stockholm Convention of 19819. Since then, these chemicals have been replaced by a slew of new herbicides, pesticides and fungicides designed to kill the things that threaten a farmer’s bottom line.
These include not just neonicotinoids, but also glyphosate—the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.
Roundup was designed to be used in conjunction with Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” seeds, which in turn have been genetically altered to withstand otherwise lethal doses of the chemical. This way, only the non-modified weeds die while the crop survives the indiscriminate sprayings. In theory, genetically engineered seeds were supposed to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. It didn’t work out that way. Today, resistant “superweeds” are taking over large swaths of farm land, and in an effort to stay on top of increasing weed resistance, farmers using Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GE) seeds have progressively started using more and more Roundup.
The increased pesticide residue remains in the foods that wind up on your dinner table, as glyphosate is taken up systemically throughout the plant and cannot be washed off.
About 90 percent of the corn produced in the US is genetically engineered, and GE soybeans account for almost 95 percent of US production. In other words, if you’re eating non-organic corn or soybeans in the United States, you’re eating a genetically engineered crop that’s been repeatedly and thoroughly drenched in glyphosate. The same applies to eating meats from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as they’re typically fed GE grains.
The danger to you and your children is very real, according to the latest research. While Monsanto insists that Roundup is safe and “minimally toxic” to humans, a recent report published in the journal Entropy10 argues that glyphosate residues, found in most commonly consumed foods in the Western diet courtesy of GE sugar, corn, and soy, “enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease.” According to the authors:
“Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.”
The main finding of the report is that glyphosate inhibits cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes, a large and diverse group ofenzymes that catalyze the oxidation of organic substances. This, the authors state, is “an overlooked component of its toxicity to mammals.” One of the functions of CYP enzymes is to detoxify xenobiotics—chemical compounds found in a living organism that are not normally produced or consumed by the organism in question. By limiting the ability of these enzymes to detoxify foreign chemical compounds, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of those chemicals and environmental toxins you may be exposed to—including other pesticides.
How You Can Avoid Toxic Pesticide Exposure
First and foremost, to limit your exposure to the most common agricultural chemicals, such as neonicotinoids and glyphosate, you want to buy as much fresh organic produce as possible, as synthetic chemicals are not allowed on organic crops. For a good guide to which conventionally grown produce carry the lowest pesticide residues, and which you’re best off buying organic due to their heavy pesticide load, see my recent article, How to Find the Healthiest Fare in Meat and Produce Aisles.
Since years’ worth of these toxins now pollute our soils and waterways, including the sources of most if not all human drinking water, I also recommend investing in a good water filtration system for your home or apartment to ensure you are drinking the purest water possible. Also consider a shower filter, as they may actually cause more damage to your body through your skin than from drinking unfiltered water. Additional recommendations to limit your exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides include:
- Grow your own food. While this may be a challenge for many, nearly everyone, even those with a studio apartment or a dorm room can easily grow sprouts that can serve as a large percentage of the organic vegetables that you eat.
- Detoxify your lawn. If you have a lawn care service, make sure they are not using the organophosphate pesticide trichlorfon. Also, avoid using Roundup to control weeds around your home.
- Clean out your shed. The pesticide diazinon (sold under the brand names Diazinon or Spectracide) has been banned from residential, but there might be some left in your old garden shed.
- Use natural cures for a lice infection. Malathion is used for treatment of head lice. Don’t put a neurotoxin on your child’s head.
- Check your school’s pest control policy. If they have not already done so, encourage your school district to move to Integrated Pest Management, which uses less toxic alternatives.