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Why EPA needs to rein in neonic pesticides

Why EPA needs to rein in neonic pesticides

In 1962, scientist Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” warning the American public about how toxic pesticides would lead to the disappearance of singing birds and humming insects. Carson’s book resulted in a nationwide ban on almost all use of the pesticide DDT and inspired the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

EPA is now overdue for a new wakeup call: this time on the dangers of neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” a class of pesticides that leaches through the soil and into the water, permeates the food we eat and makes its way into our bodies.

That’s why a leading group of scientists and health experts sent a letter to EPA this week, calling on the agency to fully assess the harms of neonics as required by law — particularly to pregnant women and children — and to ban needless neonic uses that threaten people and wildlife.  

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Like DDT, neonics are neurotoxic — that’s how they kill insects. But humans have nerve sites similar to the sites in insect nerves targeted by neonics. And that’s cause for concern because new research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-to-two-hundred million Americans are regularly exposed to neonics, with children on average having higher levels than adults. 

These results aren’t surprising. Due to EPA’s broad approvals, neonics now appear in countless places — from backyards to bed bug products and farm fields to pet collars —despite their questionable usefulness. For example, countless corn and soybean seeds are treated with pesticides, which provide little to no value to farmers. Yet, they’re used on over a hundred million acres of land nationwide.

Neonics are also “systemic,” meaning they permeate plant tissues to make a plant’s leaves, roots, and fruit, toxic. The pesticides appear in many fruits and vegetables like spinach, applesauce, and even baby food.

Neonics are not just on these foods, but in them, so cannot be washed off. Neonics also move easily through the environment, contaminating water and soil, where they are absorbed by other plants. Consequently, neonics now pollute large portions of land and water across the country, also turning up in tap water as the chemicals are not removed by conventional drinking water treatment.

Research has discovered neonics in newborn infants, indicating that the chemicals are transferred to the fetus from women exposed during pregnancy. This has raised red flags among health professionals because emerging studies also link neonic exposures with neurological and developmental harms — including malformations of the developing heart and brain, autism, and symptoms like memory loss and muscle tremors. Whatever the route, half the American population is now regularly exposed to neonics, and people aren’t the only ones being poisoned. 

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Neonics are closely connected with massive bee losses over the past two decades. Recently, they’ve also been linked to losses of birdsfishbutterflies and other native pollinators, as well as developmental defects in deer, and the collapse of aquatic invertebrate populations that are critical parts of the food web. Sound familiar?

It’s eerily reflective of Carson’s warning on the massive die-off of multiple species as a result of pesticide use. Some observers have called the sheer breadth of neonics’ environmental damages a “second Silent Spring,” about Carson’s book. 

In 2019, an all-too-familiar warning came from scientists at the United Nations about the threat of losing up to one million species as a result of human activity. Despite international outcries, the EPA has done close to nothing to reverse the impacts of neonics. It’s time for that to change. 

EPA has failed to apply the full protective force of the law when it comes to neonics, approving widespread neonic use while flouting federal law designed to protect sensitive populations like pregnant women and children.

While federal food safety law provides stringent rules to safeguard people from dangerous pesticide exposure, more must be done. Additional research is urgently needed, as well as health-protective action. While the chemicals are different, our letter to the EPA echoes Rachel Carson’s dire warning on the dangers of pesticide use. 

At the end of “Silent Spring,” Carson writes of a choice of two roads, one which follows the poisonous status quo, and the other which assures the preservation of the Earth, and our health with it. When it came to DDT, EPA chose the right road. We hope the agency does the same with neonics now.

Jennifer Sass, PH.D., is a senior scientist of Federal Toxics at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she focuses on the science behind toxic chemical regulation.