Can NY Protect Bees, Birds, People from Toxic Pesticides?

The New York Birds and Bees Protection Act (A7429/S699B) from Assemblyman Steve Englebright and State Senator Brad Hoylman would build on recent momentum to rein in harmful neonic pesticides, including from the state’s environmental agency. New Yorkers can TAKE ACTION by signing the petition HERE.

People are getting wise to neonicotinoids (AKA “neonics”)—the neurotoxic pesticides linked to mass losses of bees, birds, and fish; vast water contamination; and, increasingly, risks to human health. In June, Maine became the first state to ban the harmful pesticides in residential areas. In January, New Jersey went a step further to prohibit almost all outdoor, non-agricultural uses (responsible for the vast majority of neonic pollution in the largely urban/suburban state).

Neonic pesticides devastate bees, but we now know their harms are much bigger.

Now, New York seems poised to take the next step still with the Birds and Bees Protection Act (A7429/S699B)—a bill founded in findings a recent massive Cornell University report—which would eliminate 80-90% of the neonics entering New York’s environment every year by prohibiting only those uses that provide little-to-no benefit to users or are easily replaced with safer alternatives. The bill passed the state Senate last June, and is gaining momentum after a Assembly hearing on neonics in September. The bill would also nicely complement a recent move by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to restrict some neonic uses to “protect public health and the environment.”

Today, a group of advocates from public health, farming, and environmental groups took to the electronic halls of the Capitol with a virtual lobby day in support of the bill and the critical need to rein in neonic pesticide contamination.

Some sharp-looking advocates from today's virtual lobby day.

Neonics: Bad News for Bees, Bad News for Everyone

For those who have heard of neonics, it’s likely due to their leading role in massive losses of honey bees and wild bees, both critical to food production. Recent research shows many top crops—such as apples, blueberries, and cherries—are “pollinator limited,” meaning a lack of bees and other pollinators is already lowering yields. As neonic pollution continues to drive these losses, the situation only gets worse. Indeed, last year was the second worst on record for honey bee losses, both in New York and nationwide.

Bees’ critical role in food production—responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat—as well as in ecosystem health would be reason enough to worry about neonics. If current trends continue, some of our most delicious and nutritious foods would become scarcer and much more expensive, hitting under-resourced communities the hardest. But we also now know the problems with neonics are much bigger.

Neonics are among the most insect-toxic pesticides ever created. Designed to permeate plants—making their fruit, leaves, pollen, nectar, etc. toxic—neonics are often literally painted on crop seeds, which the growing plant is intended to soak up through its roots. Just one such corn seed commonly has enough chemical active ingredient to kill a quarter million bees. And only 2-5% of it makes it into the target plant, leaving the other 95+% in the environment where it migrates easily with rainwater to contaminate other soil, plants, and water supplies.

Widespread overuse of neonics has led to widespread, chronic pollution of vast expanses of our environment—driving down bird and fish populations by wiping out their insect and invertebrate food sources. Eating one neonic-treated seed can kill a small songbird, and even at non-lethal doses, neonics impair birds’ immune systems, fertility, and navigation, and cause rapid weight loss—reducing their chances of surviving in the wild. Research also links neonic levels commonly found in white-tailed deer in the wild with birth defects and higher rates of death for fawns.

Neonics levels commonly found in white-tailed deer have been linked with birth defects and higher rates of death for fawns.

That research—along with other animal studies, EPA neonic poisoning reports, and early human health studies—is increasingly alarming health experts. Earlier this month, more than three-dozen New York health researchers, doctors, and nurses, sent a letter to Governor Hochul and state legislative leaders to rein in neonic use to protect New Yorker’s health, particularly that of the children.

New York Is No Stranger to Neonic Pollution

In New York, evidence of vast neonic contamination appears in water and in New Yorkers themselves. Testing finds neonics frequently in surface waters—as well as a third of Long Island groundwater samples—at levels expected to cause “ecosystem-wide damage.” Monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also finds that, on any given day, neonics or their break-down products are in the bodies of about half the U.S. population.

New Yorkers may also be more likely to see neonics in their tap water than elsewhere. Activated carbon filtration can remove neonics from water, conventional chlorination treatment doesn’t—a concern for New York City and Syracuse’s famously unfiltered water supplies as well as others that don’t use the newer technology. Neonics also commonly appear in food—including baby food—which, because they permeate foods, cannot be washed off.

Neonics commonly contaminate New York water. Users of Long Island groundwater and New York City and Syracuse's unfiltered water supplies may be at higher risk of seeing neonics at the tap.

Of course, New Yorkers can reduce their risk of neonic exposures by installing filtration systems at their tap and purchasing only organic foods. But these options are not possible for all New York families, particularly those struggling to make ends meet.

The Birds and Bees Protection Act—A Commonsense, Science-Based Solution for New York

Fortunately, New York now has an opportunity to be a leader in significantly curbing neonic pollution in a smart and targeted fashion with the Birds and Bees Protection Act (A7429/S699B), which eliminates the two largest neonic sources in the state that the Cornell report shows are also the least-beneficial.

Specifically, it finds that neonic-treated corn, soybean, and wheat seeds—which account for roughly three-quarters of all neonic use in New York agriculture and covering well over a million acres—pose “substantial” risks to bees, but “no overall net income benefit to farmers.” Neonic treatments on these seeds rarely benefit farm yields. But even when they do, the extra cost of the pesticide on the seed negates the benefit.

Neonic-treated corn seeds--colorized to warn that they are toxic.

Likewise, most non-agricultural neonic uses—like those banned in Maine and New Jersey—are generally best replaced with nothing, but even where insecticides may be warranted safer, effective alternatives abound.

The Birds and Bees Protection Act bans these two needless and harmful uses—which account for 80-90% of all neonic use in New York, without prohibiting any other neonic uses in agriculture or treatments against invasive species. It also builds on DEC’s recent action to prohibit “over-the-counter” consumer neonic products in order to protect the health of bees and people.

With the harms from neonics continuing to pile up year after year, we’ll be fighting with our coalition partners to get New York to take the next step in neonic protection by passing this commonsense and much-needed legislation. If you live in New York and want to take action too, please sign the online petition.

About the Authors

Daniel Raichel

Acting Director, Pollinator Initiative, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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