As other nations act (and the Trump administration dithers) on restrictions to protect bees, birds, fish, and water supplies from neurotoxic neonicotinoid insecticides (AKA, “neonics”), California once again finds itself in the position of trailblazer. It’s accepting comments on a first-in-the-nation state regulatory proposal to protect pollinators from toxic neonic pollution until Friday Oct. 30. While an important first step, the proposal must go much further to stop neonics’ frightening impacts. [UPDATE: NRDC filed legal and technical comments on the proposal, which are available here].
Those impacts read like an ecological horror film—massive losses of honey bees threatening food security and agricultural economies, dramatic collapses of bird (see here and here) and fish populations, birth defects in white-tailed deer, and soil and water contamination from coast to coast. With half of the U.S. population regularly exposed to neonics according to the CDC, there’s even growing concern about their impact on human health.
Highly toxic, persistent, and mobile, these popular pesticides go beyond mere bug sprays. They’re designed to get deep into plants—making their fruit, leaves, roots, nectar, pollen, etc. poisonous to insects. Those same permeating properties make them especially susceptible to get picked up in rain and irrigation water, spreading out to contaminate soil, water, and wild plants on an almost unprecedented scale.
Unsurprisingly, neonic contamination is being likened more and more to a “second Silent Spring” (see, e.g., here and here), Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book, which asked readers to imagine springtime devoid of bird or insect song because of the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides. The 58-year old book now seems more relevant than ever as scientists confront neonics’ role in a possible new “insect apocalypse,” and Californians continue to wrestle with the legacy of DDT, including the discovery of as many as half a million barrels of DDT dumped long ago just off L.A.’s coast.
The good news is that through a 2014 law and initiative by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), California must put in place “control measures” to protect pollinator health from neonic contamination. Unfortunately, DPR’s current plan falls short. To avoid a neonic nightmare, the agency must:
- Restrict the use of neonic-treated seeds, which may be the single largest use of neonics in California. One truly scary fact is that DPR does not regulate (as in, at all) the pesticide-treated seeds blanketing hundreds of thousands of acres of state crop land—prompting NRDC and a coalition of health and environmental groups to petition the agency to correct course. DPR has so far responded to the petition with a promise to collect more information, but swift action is needed.
- Restrict non-agricultural neonic uses, which are currently ignored by DPR’s plan. We know these uses are important because neonics are frequently found in California’s urban and suburban surface waters.
- Protect against all real-world neonic exposures to protect California’s thousands of other pollinating species. Currently, DPR’s plan only looks at honey bee exposures to contaminated crop pollen and nectar, when we know neonics contaminate the whole environment and there are many ways pollinators can be poisoned.
- Consider neonics’ impacts beyond bees. While bees are critically important, we know neonics’ harms are much bigger (see NRDC’s New York report on this here). DPR must regulate to protect California’s soil, water, plants, and other wildlife—and Californians too.
As the first state to take neonic pollution head on—while the Trump EPA is otherwise asleep at the wheel—and one of the largest and most diverse agricultural producers in the world, California is in a position to be a national leader on protecting its bees, its environment, and its people, but it must do more. There’s too much at stake not to.
A near-Halloween comment period seems like an ideal time to tell the state to do just that. If you live in California, let DPR know—let’s save the horror for the movies and clamp down on the terrifying effects of neonics now.