We now have further proof that we are interacting with contaminated water. Nicotine-based systemic insecticides, better known as neonicotinoids, have been linked to the decline of honeybees and are now a steady presence in the small and great rivers that flow through Midwestern farm country.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey study, published in Environmental Pollution and led by scientists Kathryn Kuivila and Michelle Hladik, found these neurotoxins in nine rivers and streams in the Midwest, including the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
States with the highest reported use of neonicotinoids, such as Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, transport contaminated water along these nine rivers and streams.
“Neonicotinoid insecticides are receiving increased attention (from) scientists as we explore the possible links between pesticides, nutrition, infectious disease, and other stress factors in the environment possibly associated with honeybee die-offs,” says Kuivila.
Neonicotinoids are sometimes sprayed over foliage, but more commonly they are entrenched in the soil or coated onto the seed, becoming part of a plant’s vascular system and impacting its growth. Neonicotinoids can also remain in the soil for more than a decade, at which point they can leach into ground and surface water. The result is contaminated water.
Today neonicotinoids are the most commonly used class of insecticides in industrial agriculture throughout the world, often having replaced older types of poisons called organophosphates. The United States has allowed a dramatic increase in their use over the past 10 years, while the European Commission recently restricted the use of three neonicotinoid chemicals.
“This study confirms what beekeepers and independent researchers have been saying for several years,” says Beekeeper Tom Theobald. “Not only have millions of acres of plants been poisoned but now we see that the water source for bees and other wildlife is equally toxic.”
Amounts of Neonics Found in Contaminated Water
Although neonicotinoids dissolve in water, researchers have found they do not break down quickly in the environment. The most popular neonicotinoid chemical, imidacloprid, is toxic at 10-100 nanograms per liter when aquatic organisms are exposed to it. USGS researchers found imidacloprid at 23 percent (32.7 nanograms per liter) in Midwestern rivers and streams.
The other two neonicotinoids most often studied are clothianidin and thiamethoxam, found at 75 percent (257 nanograms per liter) and 47 percent (185 nanograms per liter), respectively. Previous studies show that they produce toxic effects similar to imidacloprid.
In the case of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder, they presumably transport these poisons to their hives in the form of nectar and pollen, affecting future generations. The poisons also affect other pollinators such as birds, butterflies, and bats.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains it is not likely that neonicotinoids are carcinogenic to humans. But according to the European Food Safety Authority (equivalent to the EPA in Europe), neonics do indeed harm humans and developing brains.
The results, published this week, raise significant concerns because they suggest considerable threats to insects that form the base of the food chain in aquatic ecosystems. These recent findings also support another study in Nature, published in June 2014, which found sharp declines in birds wherever the insecticides were widely used in Holland.
“The EPA has carefully avoided any soil or water sampling lest it reveals their failure to address this issue,” says Theobald.
In 2013, 242 million acres of treated seed was planted in the United States. “EPA’s own scientists called for soil and water sampling in 2003, but their cautions have simply been ignored by EPA regulators, and now with this USGS data their failures are revealed,” adds Theobald.
The concentrations found by the study are lower than those the EPA considers fatal to aquatic insects. But other scientists have found that the EPA’s estimates for toxicity may be too high. For instance, Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes, believes there is no safe dose because the effect on bees’ synapses is cumulative and irreversible.
“Even more importantly, these organisms are not exposed to just one neonicotinoid,” says Kuivila. “And there are other pesticides, other stressors.”
Indeed, studies have shown that these poisons actually synergize and become even more toxic.
Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, giant manufacturers of pesticides, say that neonicotinoids provide significant increases in yields for farmers. Year after year, despite a growing body of research that links pesticide use with rises in numerous diseases, such as autism, they claim there is no evidence that their products are harmful to the environment or our health.
Yet independent research by Christian Krupke of Purdue and by the Center for Food Safety show that, in the vast majority of cases, neonicotinoids are unnecessary and result in no increase in yields.
How much proof and how many deaths do we need before we ban these poisons?
“These findings are just the tip of the iceberg – the USGS study confirms the widespread contamination that many independent scientists have been warning of for years. Neonicotinoids are toxic, persistent, and mobile – it’s a recipe for environmental disaster. This study sounds the alarm for big problems ahead,” says Larissa Walker, Policy & Campaign Coordinator for Center for Food Safety.
Could we just take a moment to realize we are being poisoned and robbed daily of the right to have clean food and a non-toxic environment? The honeybees are the modern canary in our proverbial coal mine. They are messengers. The question is, will we listen?
Watch the trailer for the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Ellen Page.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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