Dead in the Water: Popular Pesticides Harm NY Wildlife

If you’ve heard about neonics—the world’s most widely used insecticides linked to massive bee deaths and bird declines across the U.S.—you might expect them to show up in the places where they’re used, like farm fields, orchards, or home gardens. But a new report (commissioned by NRDC) reveals that if you’re a New York resident, you likely need look no further than your local stream (or maybe even your drinking water) to find the popular pesticides.

Neonics are implicated in the declines of song birds, like this white-crowned sparrow.

Photo by Dick Daniels

That report*, by pesticide risk assessment expert Dr. Pierre Mineau, looks at water testing data collected by the state and federal governments over the last two decades to uncover a rather unpleasant truth—neonics are all over New York’s surface waters. Worse yet, the vast majority of detections (between 60-100% in any given year) clock neonics at or above the U.S. EPA’s “benchmark” for long-term harms to aquatic life.

That’s bad news for many of the state’s birds, fish, and other wildlife, including the beneficial insects that support sustainable agriculture. Neonics are neurotoxic poisons designed to broadly kill insects, so many aquatic insect populations (and other invertebrates, like crabs) die out when they suddenly find themselves swimming in the chemicals. Even at sublethal levels, neonics can fatally weaken insects, leaving them less able to evade predators, find food, or the survive winter.

The humble mayfly—a source of food for birds, fish, and other wildlife—is particularly vulnerable to neonic contamination.

Photo by Michael Palmer

And as insect populations plummet, so too do those of the animals that eat them, like birds, fish, and amphibians. That’s why the report finds a “very high” probability that neonics are causing “ecosystem-wide damage” in the Empire State. Other new research also links neonics with direct harms to songbirds—highlighting their role in the dramatic North American bird losses of the last several decades. 

Perhaps even more concerning, the report finds impacts not limited to the great outdoors—with roughly three out of ten recent Long Island groundwater samples testing positive for the neonic imidacloprid. And since imidacloprid accounts for about half of the recorded neonic use in New York—with the other neonic chemicals not generally tested for—the total neonic contamination problem may be double or worse.

While alarming, these results shouldn’t surprise New York regulators. In the mid-2000s, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) refused to register products containing two major neonic chemicals for outdoor uses, citing their potential to leach through soil and contaminate water. Yet it approved hundreds of products containing other neonic chemicals, which pose equal if not greater risks.

The result? Pretty much what you’d expect—neonics now saturate New York waterways. Or, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified in a November 2018 study, neonics in New York streams “exceed toxicity and regulatory thresholds,” making this a grave issue (literally) for critical aquatic species.

A 1903 drawing of a brook trout, the state fish of New York, trying to catch an artifical fly. Fish have enjoyed eating aquatic insects for a long time.

While the situation is grim with no help in sight from the Trump Administration, there is something New York can do about it. At the top of the list is the Birds and Bees Protection Act—introduced last year by Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Senator Brad Hoylman—which puts a five-year pause on the destructive use of neonic pesticides, giving the state time to study their full range of impacts. DEC can act too—by enacting restrictions through its own agency rules.

With New York’s aquatic ecosystems under daily assault, it’s still not too late to reverse the damage. But regulators and legislators need to act quickly, before the state’s wildlife—from water bugs to birds and mammals—are in too deep.

*A longer, more in-depth version of the report is available here.

About the Authors

Daniel Raichel

Staff Attorney, Pollinator Initiative, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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