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EPA Report Shows Common Family of Pesticides Poses Threat to Over 200 Species

Despite the massive threat to ecosystems, the Biden administration is dragging its feet on regulating the chemicals.

A bee pollenates a flower during a bloom of yellow wildflowers in Palos Verdes Estates, California on May 5, 2023.

A newly published assessment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that three of the most commonly used neonicotinoid insecticides threaten the continued existence of more than 200 endangered plant and animal species.

“The EPA’s analysis shows we’ve got a five-alarm fire on our hands, and there’s now no question that neonicotinoids play an outsized role in our heartbreaking extinction crisis,” Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said Friday in a statement.

“The EPA has to use the authority it has to take fast action to ban these pesticides,” said Burd, “so future generations don’t live in a world without bees and butterflies and the plants that depend on them.”

The agency’s new analysis found that clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam likely jeopardize the continued existence of 166, 199, and 204 plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), respectively. This includes 25 distinct insects, more than 160 plants reliant on insect pollination, and dozens of fish, birds, and invertebrates.

Species being put at risk of extinction include the whooping crane, Indiana bat, Plymouth redbelly turtle, yellow larkspur, Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken, rusty patched bumblebee, Karner blue butterfly, American burying beetle, Western prairie fringed orchid, vernal pool fairy shrimp, and the spring pygmy sunfish.

“The EPA confirmed what we have been warning about for years — these neonicotinoid insecticides pose an existential threat to many endangered species and seriously undermine biodiversity,” Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this dire news is what we have told EPA all along. EPA should be ashamed that it still has yet to ban these life-threatening pesticides.”

The EPA is well aware of the risks associated with the three neonicotinoids in question. One year ago, the agency released biological evaluations showing that the vast majority of endangered species are likely harmed by clothianidin (1,225 species, or 67% of the ESA list), imidacloprid (1,445, 79%), and thiamethoxam (1,396, 77%). Its new analysis focuses on which imperiled species and critical habitats are likely to be driven extinct by the trio of insecticides.

As CBD pointed out: “For decades the EPA has refused to comply with its Endangered Species Act obligations to assess pesticides’ harms to protected species. The agency was finally forced to do the biological evaluations by legal agreements with the Center for Food Safety and the Natural Resources Defense Council. After losing many lawsuits on this matter, the EPA has committed to work toward complying with the act.”

“Given the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to lift a finger to protect endangered species from pesticides, we commend the EPA for completing this analysis and revealing the disturbing reality of the massive threat these pesticides pose,” said Burd. “The Biden administration will have the stain of extinction on its hands if it doesn’t muster the courage to stand up to Big Ag and ban these chemicals.”

CFS science director Bill Freese said that “while we welcome EPA’s overdue action on this issue, we are closely examining the agency’s analysis to determine whether still more species are jeopardized by these incredibly potent and ubiquitous insecticides.”

As CFS explained:

Chemically similar to nicotine, neonicotinoids kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems. Just billionths of a gram can kill or impair honeybees. Introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have rapidly become the most widely used insecticides in the world. Neonics can be sprayed or applied to soil, but by far the biggest use is application to seeds. The neonic seed coating is absorbed by the growing seedling and makes the entire plant toxic. CFS has a separate case challenging EPA’s regulation of these seed coatings.

Bees and other pollinators are harmed by exposure to neonic-contaminated nectar and pollen, with studies demonstrating disruptions in flight ability, impaired growth and reproduction as well as weakened immunity. Neonic-contaminated seed dust generated during planting operations causes huge bee kills, while pollinators also die from direct exposure to spray.

Neonics are also persistent (break down slowly), and run off into waterways, threatening aquatic organisms. EPA has determined that neonics likely harm all 38 threatened and endangered amphibian species in the U.S., among hundreds of other organisms. Birds are also at risk, and can die from eating just one to several treated seeds.

Neonicotinoids have long been prohibited in the European Union, but as recently as a few months ago, a loophole enabled governments to grant emergency derogations temporarily permitting the use of seeds coated with these and other banned insecticides. In January, the E.U.’s highest court closed the loophole for neonicotinoid-treated seeds — a decision the post-Brexit United Kingdom refused to emulate.

In the U.S., neonicotinoids continue to be used on hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural land, contributing to an estimated 89% decline in the American bumblebee population over the past 20 years.

According to Freese, “EPA has thus far given a free pass to neonicotinoids coated on corn and other crop seeds — which represent by far their largest use — that make seedlings toxic to pollinators and other beneficial insects.”

“Our expert wildlife agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service — have the final say on this matter,” Freese added, “and may well find that neonicotinoids put even more species at risk of extinction.”

A 2019 scientific review of the catastrophic global decline of insects made clear that a “serious reduction in pesticide usage” is essential to prevent the extinction of up to 41% of the world’s insects in the coming decades.

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