April 22nd has been designated Earth Day since 1970. Twenty million in USA demonstrated for the environment that first year and brought about several critical pieces of US legislation including The Clean Air Act, The Water Quality Improvement Act and The Toxic Substances Control Act. Also the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970, charged with protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment – air, water and land. Other countries developed their own regulations. According to The European Environment Agency (EEA) report entitled ‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings – Lessons from Health Hazards’, we are not doing well. The report covers the manufacture and release for sale of a number of substances including lead in petrol , tobacco and the pesticide DBCP. It states that each risk is unique, but its survey of a number of industries allows it to conclude: ‘Manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and claiming over regulation appears to be a deliberate strategy for some industry groups.’ Secret internal documents have revealed that for decades the Tobacco Industry attempted to generate controversy about the health risks of its products. Involvement in research was hidden and tame academics were paid to head up nominally independent research bodies. Unfavourable results do not emerge. In response to early warnings about public health hazards interested parties often make ‘authoritative assertions’ about the absence of risk despite having little or no data to support their claims. ‘No evidence of harm’ is thereby mischaracterized as “Evidence of no harm’. The approach is still common. The performance of the oil industry in respect of Tetra Ethyl Lead (TEL), an efficiency additive to petrol, can be taken as typical of any industry producing a hazardous product from which it makes good profits. By 1925 there was much scientific evidence showing that children were poisoned by lead in paint. In Europe lead in paint was banned between 1909 and 1930, but in the US not until 1970. In 1925 TEL was given a one day trial and approved, but only under careful monitoring and regulations which never took place. In 1943 Byers & Lord reported chronic brain damage in lead poisoned children. The Industry said leaded petrol was essential to the industrial progress of America, and that there was no risk to the public from the exposure conditions in the streets. But Alice Hamilton, the country’s leading authority on lead said that there was no way to know how to regulate leaded petrol so that it would be safe. In 1965, a geologist researcher, Clair Patterson, showed that technological activity had raised human body lead burdens to levels that were some 600 times higher than that of our pre industrial ancestors. The Industry tried to buy him out. They tried to discredit and destroy him. They failed. His longstanding contract with the Public Health Service was not renewed and his substantial contract with the American Petroleum Institute was terminated. In 1979 Needleman reported dose related mental deficits in children with background lead exposure. In other words, the more TEL a child had breathed in and absorbed, the greater the damage to the brain. The Industry responded by character assassination of Needleman. Leaded petrol was finally phased out in the US in 1995. Lead levels in children’s and adults’ blood dropped dramatically. Each wave of early warning scientists in the leaded petrol saga had either their funding withdrawn, their jobs threatened or their character assassinated. They share these experiences with other early warning scientists. Let us move on to the present. A relatively new class of pesticide, with a huge market share, the neonicotinoids, are under fire. These neonics comprise several different specific products of which three main ones are imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. They are marketed under a variety of trade names including Merit (for golf courses), Gaucho, Flagship, Cruiser and many more. They work as neurotoxins to invertebrates, and are what are called systemic insecticides. They are taken up and absorbed by plants, so that they are to be found in every part of the plant including the pollen and nectar. They are designed to kill sucking insects such as aphids, and they do. Sadly, a number of studies show that they are causing the most serious damage to honey bees and other pollinators. It is calculated that at least 30% of the world’s food crops by volume are pollinated by insects. Honeybees, wild bees, bumblebees, hoverflies, flies, butterflies, moths all play a part in pollination. Many crops would not exist without them. So we had better get it right, here at home as well as elsewhere. In this story are beekeepers, environmentalists, scientists, regulatory agencies, governments and manufacturers. The beekeepers are worried about the catastrophic decline in their working hives. The manufacturers are concerned to protect their multi billion dollar industry and that there shall be no acknowledgement that their products are killing bees and other pollinators upon which they might have to pay damages. The scientists and the regulatory agencies are somewhat in the middle. In the UK Parliament, the influential Environmental Audit Committee has under the heading ‘Pollinators and Pesticides’ (Report April 2013) received much evidence from concerned parties about neonics and their effect upon pollinators, including the following: Dutch toxicologist, Dr. Henk Tennekes reported in his 2013 paper ‘The neonic insecticides, a disaster in the making’, that neonics are killing ALL pollinating insects and soil invertebrates and earthworms beneath the ground, and that a high dose will kill 50% of bees in 48 hours, but a much lower dose (1000 times lower) will kill over a much longer time period. Dr. Pierre Mineau, a scientist with 30 years experience in pesticide evaluation and research, said that this class of insecticide had much more impact on our natural environment than merely impact on pollinators. They are extremely toxic to the aquatic larvae of several key insect groups. The Brighton & Lewes Beekeepers quoted increasing evidence that neonics impair bees immune systems making them more susceptible to parasites and diseases. A telling study was one in which bumblebees were exposed to imidacloprid in the laboratory at rates to which they would have been subject in the field. They were then released to forage in the field. There were sharply reduced colony growth rates, and production of 85% fewer queens to found new colonies in the Spring. That way lies extinction. A report released in October 2012 (Raine) studies the effects of two of these pesticides at sublethal concentrations and in realistic combinations on honey bee behaviour. Exposure over a period of time drastically impaired bees foraging and navigational ability and increased worker bee mortality putting colonies at high risk. But it took two weeks for differences in behaviour to appear. But the way pesticide risk assessment is tested before approval/licence to market, is often short term, 24 to 48 hours, so the damage shown by the Raine experiment simply would not have emerged. A report in January 2013 by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that neonics posed an unacceptable risk to bees and that they should not be used on flowering crops. In February 2013 The Royal Society for Protection of Birds, through its Agricultural Policy officer said: ‘Everyone is coming to the same conclusion: there is a real and present danger on crops that are attracting bees because these substances are present in the pollen and the nectar. We have come to the conclusion that the risk is not acceptable’. EFSA did a six year study on the persistence of imidacloprid in the soil. It calculated the half life of 1333 days at one site and 1268 days at another. That is to say that it took that time for the initial amount to reduce itself by half. Further applications topped up the level. Germany, France and Italy have established partial bans. An EU ban affecting 27 nations was ann
ounced on April 29th 2013. All this and more was before the UK Committee. Some of their conclusions are: Neonic pesticides are not fundamental to the general economic or agricultural viability of UK farming… Defra (The UK Ministry responsible for approval of pesticides) policy on pesticides must be evidence based. Where available scientific evidence is either incomplete or contradictory Defra must apply the precautionary principle rather than maintaining the status quo while waiting for further evidence… Economic factors should not blur environmental risk assessment, where the protection of people and the environment must be paramount. It is desirable that the minimal possible use of chemical pesticides is used in agriculture. Utilize integrated pest management. There is no compelling economic or agricultural case for neonicotinoid use in private gardens and on amenities such as golf courses. The Committee recommended a moratorium on the use of the three main neonics for crops attractive to bees and removal of approval for use in gardens and amenities. In the US the situation of bees and other pollinators is even worse. Suffice to say that many beekeepers, some of whom have lost more than half their hives, and independent scientists blame neonics, whilst the manufacturers and the EPA which gave (conditional) approval in the first place, call for more research before taking action against these pesticides. If you Google ‘Chensheng Lu Bee Study’ and look at the 2012Harvard report you will find the results of a simple trial showing very low doses of imidacloprid in their food responsible for collapse and death of hives. What is interesting is that after 12 weeks all the bees were alive, but after 23 weeks 15 out of 16 of the imidacloprid treated hives were virtually empty. That is what is referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. Lu said that it took only low levels of imidacloprid to cause hive collapse – less than what is normally used in areas where bees forage. Does all this hold lessons for us? Our pollinators are critical for production of fruit and vegetables. Great golf courses have existed long before neonics. Flowers and vegetables also. We have signed up to the 1992 Rio Conference on the Environment, which declared ‘… In order to protect the environment the precautionary principle shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities…’. The common sense principle would tell us that the ability to continue to produce mangos, tomatoes, onions and much, much more is on a different level to prevention of worm casts on golf course greens, or fleas on pets.