NRDC petitions EPA to cancel neonicotinoid pesticides

NRDC filed a legal petition today against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asking EPA to withdraw its approval of neonicotinoid pesticides (called neonics), given the broad scientific consensus that neonics pose a serious risk to honeybees, wild bees, and other pollinators.Bee on coneflower by Mel Peffers.jpg

Specifically, our petition says: “Given mounting scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are toxic to bees and threaten both individual and population survival, the agency should initiate cancellation proceedings for all neonicotinoid pesticide products, beginning with those for which safer alternatives are available. In the meantime … EPA should—at a minimum—initiate interim administrative review to evaluate the serious threat that neonicotinoids pose to bees.”

Our petition states that EPA should complete this interim review within one year (by 2015), whereas EPA’s own timeline is to have its review done five years from now (by 2019). If, after its review EPA fails to cancel neonicotinoid pesticides on flowering plants that attract bees, then our petition requests that EPA provide a justification for its decision.

Our petition states, “It is unlawful for EPA to allow continued widespread use of neonicotinoids while acknowledging that the agency lacks sufficient information to evaluate the harm these pesticides cause.” This is because EPA has already admitted to having significant gaps in its understanding of neonic toxicity to bees, and has used its authority to require more data from the companies that manufacture and register neonics (called registrants) – mainly Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and Sumitomo Chemical. Monsanto has a financial interest because sells seeds pre-treated with neonics. EPA required the registrant companies to conduct field tests to help understand the potential effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on long-term bee colony health and survival, levels of pesticide residues in pollen and nectar, and potential toxicity to the bee larva. However EPA has given the registrants several years to complete these studies. Meanwhile the pesticides can remain on the market, business as usual.

Compared with organophosphates, neonicotinoids appear to pose fewer risks to human health, based on available data. However, there are substantial concerns about neonicotinoids’ environmental persistence and harmful effects on beneficial non-target pollinators. Unlike traditional pesticides that are typically applied to a plant’s surface, neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that are absorbed into plant tissue, turning a plant into a “tiny poison factory” that emits toxins from its pollen down to its roots. As non-selective pesticides, neonicotinoids do not discriminate between target and non-target insect species, including beneficial pollinators.

An international committee of twenty-nine scientists – the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides - reviewed over 800 peer reviewed papers published in the past five years, including industry-sponsored ones. Its assessment, called the Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (WIA), concluded that neonicotinoid pesticides are contaminating land, soil, and water, leading to toxic threats to earthworms, snails, butterflies, birds, and bees (see BBC news report here and detailed findings of the Task Force here). In particular, the committee drew the following conclusions regarding pollinators:

  • The metabolites, or break-down products, of neonics may be more toxic than the original pesticide.
  • The classic laboratory toxicity studies, which measure short-term (acute) effects at relatively high doses, are insufficient to accurately assess the long-term (chronic) impacts to wildlife from environmentally-relevant doses.
  • Some neonics are 5-10 thousand times more acutely toxic to bees than DDT.
  • Neonics at environmentally-relevant doses over multiple seasons can harm bees by impairing smell, memory, breeding ability, and foraging and food collection.

Even the corporations that manufacture and sell neonic pesticides acknowledge that bee colony losses and bee die-offs is a very serious issue. They simply don’t acknowledge that their pesticide products – which are designed to kill insects (and bees are insects, after all) – are contributing to the problem.wasp on snapdragon by Mel Peffers.jpg

However, when the consequences are as serious as our ability to grow our own food, then a head-in-the-sand response is terribly reckless. We can do something now to reduce the use of bee-killing chemicals in our fields, golf courses, parks, home lawns and gardens, and roadways.

You can learn more and Take Action here at

Photo credit: Mel Peffers (both photos)

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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