Environment: Study finds neonicotinoid pesticides widespread in streams across the U.S.

Bad for bees, bad for people? @bberwyn photo.
Bad for bees, bad for people? @bberwyn photo.

Will fish and water bugs be decimated by systemic pesticides?

Staff Report

FRISCO — Neonicotinoid pesticides are spreading throughout the environment with as-yet unknown effects on human health, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The agency found the systemic pesticides in more than half the streams sampled across the country and in Puerto Rico during a survey between 2011 and 2014. This study is the first to take a nationwide look at the prevalence of neonicotinoid insecticides in agricultural and urban settings.

The research spanned 24 states and Puerto Rico and was completed as part of ongoing USGS investigations of pesticide and other contaminant levels in streams.

Neonicotinoids have been found to kill bee’s brain cells, and are also taking a toll on wild bee populations. Use of neonicotinoids has been banned in national wildlife refuges.

European food safety experts are already taking a hard look at the potential for human health impacts, saying that acetamiprid and imidacloprid may have harmful effects on people’s brain development and recommended lowering levels of acceptable exposures. Earlier this year, citing unacceptable hazards to bees — and on the recommendation of the EFSA — the European Union put a two-year moratorium on the use of three widely used neonicotinoids, including imidacloprid.

Last year, the USGS released a study showing widespread traces of neonicotinoids in Midwest streams, sometimes at concentrations up to 20 times higher than the level deemed safe for aquatic organisms.

“In the study, neonicotinoids occurred throughout the year in urban streams while pulses of neonicotinoids were typical in agricultural streams during crop planting season,” said USGS research chemist Michelle Hladik, the report’s lead author.

“The occurrence of low levels in streams throughout the year supports the need for future research on the potential impacts of neonicotinoids on aquatic life and terrestrial animals that rely on aquatic life,” said USGS scientist Kathryn Kuivila, the research team leader. “These results will serve as an important baseline for that future work.”

The foundational study is the first step needed to set priorities for environmental exposure experiments and the potential for adverse impacts to terrestrial and aquatic organisms. Scientists and others have raised concerns about potential harmful effects of neonicotinoids on non-target insects, especially pollinating honey bees and native bees.

In May, the White House released the Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, which includes a Pollinator Research Action Plan

“This research will support the overall goals of the Strategy, by helping to understand whether these water-borne pesticides, particularly at the low levels shown in this study, pose a risk for pollinators,” said Mike Focazio, program coordinator for the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program.

At least one of the six neonicotinoids tested by USGS researchers was found in more than half of the sampled streams. No concentrations exceeded the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s aquatic life criteria, and all detected neonicotinoids are classified as not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.

Detections of the six neonicotinoids varied:  imidicloprid was found in 37 percent of the samples in the national study, clothianidin in 24 percent, thiamethoxam in 21 percent, dinotefuran in 13 percent, acetamiprid in 3 percent, and thiacloprid was not detected.

Use of neonicotinoids to control pest insects has been increasing over the past decade, especially on corn and soybeans. Much of this increase is due to a shift from leaf applications to using the insecticides prophylactically on seeds.

The paper, “First National-Scale Reconnaissance of Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Streams across the USA,” was published in Environmental Chemistry.  To learn more about the study, please see our science feature. To learn more about USGS environmental health science, please visit the USGS Environmental Health website and sign up for our GeoHealth Newsletter.

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2 thoughts on “Environment: Study finds neonicotinoid pesticides widespread in streams across the U.S.

  1. The levels are low, but here’s the thing: They are not alone. Several other classes of chemical wastes are in the water. We know that insects such as dragonflies are responding to something in the water, so it would be prudent to asses the combined impact of neonicotinoids and other chemicals on wildlife.
    Scooped, blogged, and spread across the Internet! Thank you for the report.

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