(By Sharalyn Peterson, Healthy Wildlife & Water Program Manager)
Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short (pronounced NEE-oh-nix), are a type of systemic insecticide used widely in farming, plant nurseries and home pest control. A pesticide is “systemic” when it is absorbed by the plant and remains in its stems, roots, leaves, flowers and other parts. Neonics are either sprayed directly on the soil and on plants, or they are used to coat seeds for many crops (shown in image above). But like many pesticides, the toxic harms that neonics create aren’t just felt by the plants or seeds they are applied to. You might unknowingly be bringing neonics home to your garden, because plants sold in many nurseries are treated with neonics—see our list of Neonic-Free Nurseries in the Northwest in order to avoid these pesticides!
How Neonics Harm Insects & Whole Ecosystems
Neonics interact with the ecosystem as a whole. A substantial body of scientific evidence on these insecticides has found that they can stay in soils for years and they are easily transferred to waterways.1,2 This is leading to widespread impacts to human health, pollinators and other beneficial insects found in soils and waterways.
Studies on neonics have identified acute and chronic human health effects ranging from respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological symptoms to genetic damage and birth defects.3,4 Neonics have also contributed to the decline of bees and other beneficial soil and aquatic insects. Neonics are absorbed into plants and show up in pollen and nectar sources, posing deadly impacts for pollinators in food gathering and colony performance. Neonics have also been found to shift soil physical properties and nutrient availability.5,6
It’s not just pollinators like bees that we need to worry about, but also insects that are found in streams and other waters. The protection of aquatic insects from neonics is needed because these species are an important part of the food chain and a healthy ecosystem. Mayfly (Ephemeroptera) nymphs are one of the species that is most sensitive to neonicotinoids.7 This is worrisome as Mayfly nymphs are an important food source for young salmon and other fish. Mayflies are also an indicator of water quality and provide necessary ecosystems services such as filtration and decomposition.8
What’s Being Done to Protect Us from Neonics?
This August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released draft biological evaluations for three neonicotinoids—Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam. This evaluation includes the EPA’s analysis of how these pesticides might adversely affect threatened or endangered species and their habitat.
In response to the EPA, Beyond Pesticides wrote a comment letter with input from NCAP and Toxic Free North Carolina urging the EPA to revoke the registration of these chemicals and end their use. We believe a ban of neonics is needed due to the EPA’s own findings of high risk and adverse impacts of these pesticides. The agency’s assessment did not adequately consider loss of wildlife and ecosystem services from impaired habitats or risks posed to endangered and threatened species. The documented environmental impacts and health risks from surface and groundwater contamination are also not adequately accounted for in their assessment.
While it is vital to organize and provide comments to these evaluations to highlight their shortfalls, much more change can come from legislative efforts. There are currently two federal bills that have been introduced in 2021 supporting a ban on neonics, both of which are very exciting!
Please Help Pass These Bills in 2022
The Saving America’s Pollinators Act (SAPA) would establish a pollinator protection board to monitor the status of native pollinators and suspend the use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides harmful to pollinators until experts determine if they are safe to use. NCAP is currently prioritizing these bills and monitoring their progress.
The Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act (PACTPA) would put human health before pesticides by providing desperately-needed improvements to safety measures that would better protect people and the environment. PACTPA would overhaul U.S. pesticide regulations by banning some of the most damaging pesticides scientifically known to cause significant harm to people and the environment: neonicotinoids, organophosphate insecticides (like chlorpyrifos) and paraquat.
- Wood TJ, Goulson D. The environmental risks of neonicotinoid pesticides: a review of the evidence post 2013. Environ Sci Pollut R. 2017 [accessed 2021 Dec 6]; 24(21):17285–17325. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5533829/. doi:10.1007/s11356-017-9240-x
- Pietrzak D, Kania J, Kmiecik E, Malina G, Wątor K. Fate of selected neonicotinoid insecticides in soil–water systems: current state of the art and knowledge gaps. Chemosphere. 2020 [accessed 2021 Dec 6]; 255:126981. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0045653520311747. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2020.126981
- Thompson, DA et al. A critical review on the potential impacts of neonicotinoid insecticide use: current knowledge of environmental fate, toxicity, and implications for human health. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts. 2020 [accessed 2021 Dec 6]; 22(6):1315–1346. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9EM00586B
- Cimino AM, Boyles AL, Thayer KA, Perry MJ. Effects of neonicotinoid pesticide exposure on human health: a systematic review. Environ Health Perspect. 2017 [accessed 2021 Dec 6]; 125:155–162. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/EHP515
- Zhang P, Ren C, Sun H, Min L. Sorption, desorption and degradation of neonicotinoids in four agricultural soils and their effects on soil microorganisms. Sci Total Environ. 2018; 615, 59–69.
- Hopwood J et al. How neonicotinoids can kill bees: the science behind the role these insecticides play in harming bees. 2016; 2nd Ed. 76 pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
- Van den Brink et al. Acute and chronic toxicity of neonicotinoids to nymphs of a mayfly species and some notes on seasonal differences. Environ Toxicol Chem. 2015; 35. 10.1002/etc. 3152.
- Jacobus LM et al. Mayflies (Ephemeroptera) and their contributions to ecosystem services. Insects. 2019; 10(6):170. Published 2019 Jun 14. doi:10.3390/insects10060170.