Pesticides, unborn children and bees

Submitted: Jul 15, 2014
Badlands Journal editorial board

One rainy day, sitting in a shed in an orchard,  an old grower talked about pesticides.

"DDT?" he said. "Best pesticide in the world. Killed everything. Apply it every 28 days or after a rain and we got cleaner fruit than we'd ever seen. It started just after the war (WWII). You didn't have to set vinegar traps to see what kind of bugs you had in the orchard anymore. DDT killed EVERYTHING! So the younger generation of growers didn't have to learn anything about bugs because they didn't have to figure out what spray to use -- copper, arsenic, whatever. But DDT got Rachel Carsoned in the Sixties. That book, Silent Spring, started the environmental movement. Now they're trying to claim every frog, toad and minnow in the county is endangered, and they're winning. But she was right: DDT raised hell with the environment, thinned egg shells, caused cancer, poisoned fresh water and the ocean. But it wasn't as bad on bees and what replaced it.

He paused to pour another cup of coffee and watch how the rain was coming down on the disked dirt.

"After DDT, they went to the organophosphates, like parathion, malathion, guthion. They came from a nerve gas the Germans developed at IB Farben. Those things built up in your system and you could never get them out. For parathion, the orchards had to post a 14-day no entry warning. Some farmers were sensitive to it. If they drove by a posted orchard with their window down they'd have pain for three days or more. I don't know about the crop dusters, but it didn't improve their alcoholism any to be using that stuff. For some reason, probably because rganophosphate jangled your nerves real good to have it on your skin, you crave whisky after you finishing spraying it. When I retired, we were still using them.

"Then the environmentalists got the organophosphates outlawed and we were supposed to use more "organic" compounds like pyrethrums and nicotine. We were right back where we started before DDT. Nicotine is one of the oldest sprays we have. But for awhile, if you used these in your spray program you could become a genuine organic grower and get a lot more money for fruit from the same trees. Whoop-de-doo!

"But all these sprays have one thing in common, whether they are made in a lab or occur in nature: they work on the central nervous system and most of them are hell on bees."

Even though that's just a recollection of a distant conversation -- prompted by that phrase, "hell on bees," -- with a fruit grower who was old enough to remember horse drawn spray rigs and using big hoses with nozzles like a fire hose to spray the family's trees. "It just rained DDT," he'd said.

The man had been through all the stages of pesticides prior to the current one. And the Coddling moth came back to his orchard every year, regardless of the spray.

"You never get all of them, " he said, "but the worst thing you can do is try to save money by using less pesticide, which just creates bugs immune to that pesticide."

He'd lived in town like his parents had and all the other farmers did in that region. They knew the orchards full of poisons were not healthy places to live.

One morning in that distant town a veteran crop duster was trying to beat the wind to get the last load of pesticide out on a strawberry field next to a school.  He lost the race with the wind, the spray drifted over the school and they had to evacuate the school for a day. Many of those kids had parents and grandparents who would deny pesticides were dangerous to human health until their dying day. But they didn't complain about the school evacuation. This was because everyone knew how weird and crazy a person got after he'd been hit by parathion dust. They didn't talk much about their fears the damage was maybe permanent, but said they figured the pilot needed to be grounded until his system cleared up.  - blj

 July 2014


Not Just Bees: Controversial Pesticides Linked to Bird Declines

·         BY BRANDON KEIM  


Evidence continues to mount that a highly controversial class of pesticides blamed for widespread bee declines is also harming other creatures, perhaps catastrophically.

In a study of neonicotinoid pesticides and bird populations in the Netherlands, biologists found a close and troubling link. As neonicotinoid levels rose in streams, lakes and wetlands, populations of insect-eating birds declined. The pesticides appear to have eliminated the insects on which they rely.

“These insecticides appear to be having more profound effects than just killing our pollinating insects,” said ecologist Caspar Hallmann of Radboud University in the Netherlands, an author on the new study, published today in Nature.

Hallmann and his colleagues analyzed two long-term, Netherlands-wide datasets: one of bird counts, and the other of surface water measurements of imidacloprid, the most common neonicotinoid.

First introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have become ubiquitous in agriculture and gardening, and in recent years have been identified as a cause ofdramatic die-offs in domestic honeybees. They’re also likely contributing towidespread declines in wild bees and butterflies.

Effects on other creatures, though, were long thought to be minimal. Early toxicity tests suggested that risks to vertebrates were fairly small, and the compounds weren’t expected to accumulate in the environment at levels capable of depleting non-target insect populations.

That rosy picture has lost its glow. Researchers have questioned the usefulness of those toxicity tests; they’ve also found unexpectedly high levels of neonicotinoids in rivers, lakes and streams. There they can poison aquatic invertebrates or be absorbed by plants, eventually harming plant-eating insects. Surface-water pollution by neonicotinoids has been linked to declines in invertebrate populations.

The focus on bees “has missed the bigger picture,” wrote Dave Goulson, a biologist at the University of Sussex, in a commentary accompanying the study. And what’s been missing from the science of that bigger picture, he wrote, is the next logical piece of evidence: that unintended effects on invertebrates can ripple up the food chain.

In the new study, scientists found that in 14 out of 15 insect-eating bird species—most of them well-known, including barn swallows, tree sparrows, common starlings and a variety of warblers—the presence of neonicotinoids was associated with population declines. Above a surface water level of .0194 parts per billion, which was found in most of the Netherlands, populations shrank at an annual average of 3.5 percent between 2003 and 2009.


The results “suggest that neonicotinoids pose an even greater risk than has been anticipated,” wrote Hallmann and colleagues.

In a statement issued by neonicotinoid manufacturer Bayer, the company said the new study “provides no substantiated evidence of the alleged indirect effects of imidacloprid on insectivorous birds,” and that it “does not demonstrate that there is a causal link.”

The researchers acknowledge that correlation isn’t cause, but note that the findings fit with what’s predicted from the larger body of evidence. The researchers also looked for strong associations with changes in land use, such as urbanization, that are known to affect bird populations. They couldn’t find them. In that light, the case for harm is “made more convincing,” Goulson wrote.

Conservation biologist David Gibbons for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who recently co-authored a review of neonicotinoideffects on non-target animals, also found the study convincing. “Until this paper, the risks to bird populations from neonicotinoids was possible, even probable, but still remained only theoretical,” said Gibbons. “Their paper has shown that impacts are probably real.”

One of Gibbons’ co-authors on that neonicotinoid review was ecotoxicologist Christy Morrissey of the University of Saskatchewan, whose work in Canadian farmlands suggests similar trends. ”On the whole, the evidence is growing that neonicotinoids are exerting effects beyond pest species,” said Morrissey. “There are real conservation concerns for species beyond bees.”

Across North America, birds that live in or migrate through agricultural areas arein precipitous decline. And while an analysis like the new study would be difficult to conduct here—there are no long-term, large-scale datasets of environmental neonicotinoid levels across the U.S. and Canada—neonicotinoid pollution levels are routinely found that exceed the new study’s .0194 ppb limit.

“There’s no reason to believe that the situation is drastically different,” said study co-author Ruud Foppen, an ornithologist at the Sovon Dutch Center for Field Ornithology.

The researchers also point out that, aside from eliminating their food supply, the chemicals may also be poisoning birds—not necessarily killing them outright, but rather weakening them. That remains an area in urgent need of more research, they said, and something for government regulators to consider.

While neonicotinoids have been somewhat restricted in the European Union, they remain widely used there. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to complete its review of neonicotinoids by the decade’s end.

Those reviews, said Gibbons, should not be conducted as they’ve been in the past. “Current approval processes for these insecticides focus heavily on measures of direct, toxic effects, and largely overlook indirect effects via the food chain,” said Gibbons. “Given that neonicotinoid insecticides are more efficient at killing the invertebrate prey of vertebrates than the vertebrates themselves, this is a big oversight.”

“Clearly, if we see trends like this, it can’t go on,” said study co-author Hans de Kroon, a Radboud University ecologist. “We have to stop polluting our environment in this way.”


Scientific American

New Study: Autism Linked to Environment


Research links soaring incidence of the mysterious neurological disorder to fetal and infant exposure to pesticides, viruses, household chemicals

By Marla Cone

 California's sevenfold increase in autism cannot be explained by changes in doctors' diagnoses and most likely is due to environmental exposures, University of California scientists reported Thursday.

The scientists who authored the new study advocate a nationwide shift in autism research to focus on potential factors in the environment that babies and fetuses are exposed to, including pesticides, viruses and chemicals in household products.

"It's time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California," said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiology professor at University of California, Davis who led the study.

Throughout the nation, the numbers of autistic children have increased dramatically over the past 15 years. Autistic children have problems communicating and interacting socially; the symptoms usually are evident by the time the child is a toddler.

More than 3,000 new cases of autism were reported in California in 2006, compared with 205 in 1990. In 1990, 6.2 of every 10,000 children born in the state were diagnosed with autism by the age of five, compared with 42.5 in 10,000 born in 2001, according to the study, published in the journal Epidemiology. The numbers have continued to rise since then.

To nail down the causes, scientists must unravel a mystery: What in the environment has changed since the early 1990s that could account for such an enormous rise in the brain disorder?

For years, many medical officials have suspected that the trend is artificial--due to changes in diagnoses or migration patterns rather than a real rise in the disorder.

But the new study concludes that those factors cannot explain most of the increase in autism.

Hertz-Picciotto and Lora Delwiche of the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences analyzed 17 years of state data that tracks developmental disabilities, and used birth records and Census Bureau data to calculate the rate of autism and age of diagnosis.

The results: Migration to the state had no effect. And changes in how and when doctors diagnose the disorder and when state officials report it can explain less than half of the increase.

Dr. Bernard Weiss, a professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center who was not involved in the new research, said the autism rate reported in the study "seems astonishing." He agreed that environmental causes should be getting more attention.

The California researchers concluded that doctors are diagnosing autism at a younger age because of increased awareness. But that change is responsible for only about a 24 percent increase in children reported to be autistic by the age

"A shift toward younger age at diagnosis was clear but not huge," the report says.

Also, a shift in doctors diagnosing milder cases explains another 56 percent increase. And changes in state reporting of the disorder could account for around a 120 percent increase.

Combined, Hertz-Picciotto said those factors "don't get us close" to the 600 to 700 percent increase in diagnosed cases.

That means the rest is unexplained and likely caused by something that pregnant women or infants are exposed to, or a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

"There's genetics and there's environment. And genetics don't change in such short periods of time," Hertz-Picciotto, a researcher at UC Davis' M.I.N.D. Institute, a leading autism research facility, said in an interview Thursday.

Many researchers have theorized that a pregnant woman's exposure to chemical pollutants, particularly metals and pesticides, could be altering a developing baby's brain structure, triggering autism.

Many parent groups believe that childhood vaccines are responsible because they contained thimerosal, a mercury compound used as a preservative. But thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in 1999, and autism rates are still rising.

Dozens of chemicals in the environment are neurodevelopmental toxins, which means they alter how the brain grows. Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, lead, brominated flame retardants and pesticides are examples.

While exposure to some--such as PCBs--has declined in recent decades, others--including flame retardants used in furniture and electronics, and pyrethroid insecticides--have increased.

Mothers of autistic children were twice as likely to use pet flea shampoos, which contain organophosphates or pyrethroids, according to one study that has not yet been published. Another new study has found a link between autism and phthalates, which are compounds used in vinyl and cosmetics. Other household products such as antibacterial soaps also could have ingredients that harm the brain by changing immune systems, Hertz-Picciotto said.

In addition, fetuses and infants might be exposed to a fairly new infectious microbe, such as a virus or bacterium, that could be altering the immune system or brain structure. In the 1970s, autism rates increased due to the rubella virus.

The culprits, Hertz-Picciotto said, could be "in the microbial world and in the chemical world."

"I don't think there's going to be one smoking gun in this autism problem," she said. "It's such a big world out there and we know so little at this point."

But she added, scientists expect to develop "quite a few leads in a year or so."

The UC Davis researchers have been studying autistic children's exposure to flame retardants and pesticides to see if there is a connection. The results have not yet been published.

"If we're going to stop the rise in autism in California, we need to keep these studies going and expand them to the extent possible," Hertz-Picciotto said.

Funding for studying genetic causes of autism is 10 to 20 times higher than funding for environmental causes, she said. "It's very off-balance," she said.

Weiss agreed, saying that  "excessive emphasis has been placed on genetics as a cause. "The advances in molecular genetics have tended to obscure the principle that genes are always acting in and on a particular environment. This article, I think, will restore some balance to our thinking," he said.

Some issues related to whether the increase is merely a reporting artifact remain unresolved. There could be other, unknown issues involving diagnosis and reporting, scientists say.

The surge in autism is similar to the rise in childhood asthma, which has reached epidemic proportions for unexplained reasons. Medical officials originally thought that, too, might be due to increased reporting of the disease, but now they acknowledge that many more children are asthmatic than in the past. Experts suspect that environmental pollutants or immune changes could be responsible.

Autism has serious effects, not just on an individual child's health but on education, health care and the economy "Autism incidence in California shows no sign yet of plateauing," Hertz-Picciotto and Delwiche said in their study.

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