Environmental groups are pushing Congress and a federal court to force EPA to strengthen controls on the controversial neonicotinoid class of pesticides, filing a federal lawsuit last week seeking a ban of two neonicotinoids and also pushing legislators to encourage EPA to heighten consideration of the pesticides' possible effects on birds in agency risk assessments.
Environmentalists, beekeepers and consumer groups sued EPA March 21 to suspend the registrations of two neonicotinoids. Meanwhile, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) met last week with legislators and EPA officials to push findings from the ABC's recent report that alleges EPA's current risk assessment processes do not adequately consider ecological effects on birds and aquatic species.
The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California calls for the suspension of registrations for clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Environmentalists blame the pesticides for repeated bee kills and say they are contributing to colony collapse disorder, a component in sharp declines in bee populations seen since the mid-2000s, around the time the two neonicotinoid pesticides came into heavy use.
The suit alleges EPA has failed to protect pollinators from neonicotinoids and comes one year after environmentalists petitioned EPA to suspend its registration of clothianidin. EPA has not suspended that pesticide, instead indicating it will continue ongoing reevaluations of a variety of neonicotinoids, which could take five to seven years.
Additionally, the suit alleges EPA uses conditional registrations to allow toxic pesticides onto the market with inadequate review, according to a statement from the coalition of environmentalists and beekeepers represented by Center for Food Safety attorneys. Since 2000 more than two-thirds of pesticide products including clothianidin and thiamethoxam came to market as conditional registrations, plaintiffs say.
Meanwhile, the ABC followed up its March 19 report "The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds," by environmental toxicologist Pierre Mineau, that faults EPA's current risk assessment methods for failing to adequately consider risks of the pesticide to aquatic organisms, by meeting with congressional staff and officials with EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP).
The ABC's push includes banning neonicotinoid use in seed treatment, as well as a suspension of all neonicotinoid applications until the pesticides' ecological effects are better understood. The group is also seeking strengthened registration process that would require registrants to create a diagnostic tool to help state or county wildlife officials determine whether a certain pesticide killed wildlife.
In a statement, the pesticide manufacturers' group CropLife America says inferences that neonicotinoids cause bird declines are unfounded.
Neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals, meaning plants take them up into their stems, leaves, pollen and nectar.
Environmentalists have charged EPA's risk assessments and labeling of neonicotinoid products offer insufficient environmental and health protections. Neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s to address growing pesticide resistance to older pesticides as well as health concerns from those products, and neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insecticides in the world, the ABC says, adding that most pest control products contain one or more neonicotinoids.
EPA is taking steps to better assess neonicotinoids' risks, though the process is not moving fast enough for environmentalists. OPP Director Steven Bradbury said agency reevaluations of some neonicotinoid registrations began last year, but those processes will rely on studies called for by a science advisory panel (SAP) and the studies could take several years and push the completion of the reviews to five or seven years, Bradbury said in a March 5 interview with Inside EPA.
After acknowledging its current risk assessment methods inadequately account for the neonicotinoids' systemic properties, EPA last year proposed a new tiered pollinator risk assessment framework, aspects of which have been both commended and criticized by an SAP and a state regulator (Risk Policy Report, March 5).
Additionally, EPA March 5 held a pollinator summit to consider best practices and emerging farming technology to protect pollinators in the short-term through measures such as limiting the spread of corn dust, which can carry neonicotinoids from seeds to nearby fields (Risk Policy Report, March 12).
But in a March 21 blog post, the group Beyond Pesticides, which is a plaintiff in the beekeepers' lawsuit and advocates for a shift toward organic agriculture, said the EPA-arranged summit showed the agency is handing over responsibility for stopping bee kills to industry.
"The summit was overwhelmingly dominated by industry interests" the post says, adding that "conversation was directed away from truly meaningful dialogue on improving the health of the nation's honey bees, and instead focused on short-term, one-dimensional solutions like reducing contamination to 'acceptable levels,' and upgrading farming equipment."
In a March 21 statement, the environmentalists who filed the lawsuit said EPA's failure to act on the 2012 petition seeking a ban on clothianidin was a reason for the suit.
"America's beekeepers cannot survive for long with the toxic environment EPA has supported," a representative of the coalition of plaintiffs said in a statement. "Our country depends on bees for crop pollination and honey production. It's time for EPA to recognize the value of bees to our food system and agricultural economy."
Tougher measures to protect pollinators remains environmentalists' top concern related to EPA's handling of neonicotinoids, though the ABC is pushing for EPA to further consider neonicotinoid effects on other wildlife as well. In a March 19 congressional briefing, ABC called for a ban on the chemicals' use as seed treatments and for the suspension of all applications pending an independent review of the products' effects on birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife.
A source with ABC says the group wants EPA's registration process to include further review of independent scientific studies in addition to those submitted by pesticide registrants. The source says EPA officials have said the reviews are costly, though environmentalists say they should be done routinely rather than just when products are involved in litigation.
EPA should also require pesticide users to assess whether a pesticide is needed in each case instead of relying on neonicotinoids on seed coatings as preemptive measures whether a pest is present or not, the source says. During the meetings, EPA officials did not indicate whether they would act on ABC's requests, the source says.
CropLife America said neonicotinoid-treated seeds are vital to agriculture and help farmers protect their crops. The group says EPA's review of pesticide registrations does consider information from all sources.
"The CLA is disappointed that the report, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, paints a flawed picture of [EPA's] risk assessment of crop protection products, industry stewardship and agriculture as a whole," a CLA spokesperson said March 19 of the ABC report. "The EPA conducted a thorough review of risk to birds and other wildlife during the registration of neonicotinoids, and continues to assess the risk of these and all plant protection products on a recurring basis."