EPA Denies Emergency Petition to Suspend Clothianidin

Bees at hive entrace.  Photo by Wojsyl via Wikimedia Commons.

Bees at hive entrace. Photo by Wojsyl via Wikimedia Commons.

As scientists continue to research the massive bee die-off, dubbed as colony collapse disorder (CCD), many studies already show a direct link between the increasing use of systemic pesticides — ones that do not evaporate or disperse shortly after the application and persist in the environment for long periods — and the declining bee health.  Yet, despite the mounting evidence that systemic pesticides may be one of the key culprits, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken what some critics see as a pro-industry approach to the problem.

This past March, armed with scientific evidence and beekeepers’ reports of massive bee die offs, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), on behalf of 25 individuals and non-governmental organizations, filed an emergency petition asking the EPA to suspend the registration of a widely used systemic pesticide, clothianidin, because it presented imminent hazard to bees.  In July, the EPA announced that it was denying this request.

Clothianidin, similar to thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, is a neonicotinoid. Neonicotinoids are part of the systemic pesticide family and are of a particular concern because they kill sucking and chewing insects by disrupting their nervous system. “Unlike older pesticides that evaporate or disperse shortly after application, neonicotinoids are systemic poisons. Applied to the soil or doused on seeds, neonicotinoid insecticides incorporate themselves into the plant’s tissues, turning the plant itself into a tiny poison factory emitting toxin from its roots, leaves, stems, pollen, and nectar.” And they persist in the soil for longer than the older generation pesticides. (See our discussions regarding systemic pesticides here and here).

The EPA’s flat denial of the emergency petition left beekeepers and public and environmental advocates with a sense that the agency went to great lengths to protect corporate and agricultural interests while ignoring scientific studies and public concern.

Dissecting EPA’s Decision

In a letter explaining its denial of the emergency petition, the agency stated that, under regulations and case law, to suspend a pesticide because of an “imminent hazard” there must be harm occurring or likely to occur within one or two years that is necessary to complete the suspension of registraion for the pesticide. “Nowhere in the petition,” the EPA said, “do the petitioners explain whether the serious agricultural and ecological harm alleged … is likely to occur during these time periods.”  EPA also justified its decision by stating that the emergency petition did not discuss how the “harm identified outweighs the benefits to growers and agricultural economy from the use of the pesticides….”

Despite claiming that the petitioners did not address all concerns, the EPA went ahead and analyzed the information submitted to determine if clothianidin presents an imminent harm. The EPA’s conclusion — a massive disappointment — proclaimed that there is no “evidence adequate to demonstrate an imminent and substantial likelihood of serious harm occurring to bees and other pollinators from the use of clothianidin.” The agency’s position contradicted scientific evidence cited by the petitioners’ and the experiences of many beekeepers domestically and abroad.

How did the EPA arrive at its conclusion?  It’s all about data interpretation.

The EPA discounted any correlation between the bee die-offs and systemic pesticides. The agency said that the current bee decline is part of the overall state of bee decline that has been occurring for the last 60 years due to a large number of factors, such as changing agricultural practice, nutrition, varroa mites, disease, climate, “as well as other factors.”  Thus, concluded the EPA, “there is no clear correlation between the registration of clothianidin and declining bee population.”

The agency also took issue with the studies submitted by the petitioners. The agency said that the studies “represent a broad array of methods and measurement endpoints” and went on to discount their significance. Ironically, the agency did not have the same concerns when the manufacturer applied for clothianidin’s registration nearly a decade ago.

In fact, clothianidin was conditionally approved by the EPA back in 2003, before the agency had a safety field study from Bayer.  The agency gave Bayer an extension of time to complete its study and “[i]n addition to rewarding Bayer for dragging its feet,  EPA approved protocols  for the study that were so far removed from reality that, even once completed, the study was incapable of detecting the environmental impacts it purported to  evaluate.”

When Bayer finally submitted its long-overdue field study in 2007, the agency initially approved it as “scientifically sound” when many critics said that it was poorly designed.  Some even went as far as to call the study “bogus.”  Still, the EPA granted unconditional registration to clothinidin in April 2010. However, that November the EPA reversed itself and revoked Bayer’s study, downgrading it to a “supplemental” status and calling on the company to produce “another field study … to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar.”  Eight years later and the agency has yet to assess the affects of clothianidin on bees. As the emergency petition pointed out, “Bayer still has neither provided the outstanding data nor complied with the condition for clothianidin’s registration, which was to have been completed by December 2004.”

The agency did agree with the petitioners that clothianidin’s use is widespread — 90% of the total corn acreage in U.S. being treated with systemic pesticides, including clothianidin, in 2010, and that’s a fact hard to deny! The agency also agreed that clothianidin is “acutely toxic to bees.” The agency, however, said that it does not believe that the systemic pesticide is available in the environment in such amounts “that can cause serious, imminent harm to bee populations.” The EPA further stated that the data “simply does not suggest that bees are being regularly exposed to levels of clothianidin in pollen and nectar that could result in the sort of imminent population level impacts necessary to support an imminent hazard finding.”

As far as the connection between clothianidin and the colony collapse disorder, the EPA, in a move that felt like a slap across the face to many beekeepers, said that it “is not aware of any data that demonstrate that exposure to clothanidin results in effects on honey bee colonies consistent with those associated with CCD.”  The EPA’s analysis of studies found that some tests were performed in the lab and not in the field, where the EPA thinks concentration levels would be less than what the lab experiments provided. Furthermore, the EPA took issue with the studies being done on another neocotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, which is a predecessor to clothianidin.

Lastly, the EPA found that the incident report data submitted by petitioners was insufficient to point the finger at clothianidin as the cause of CCD. The agency explained away the German and Slovenian incidents as being related to “unusually” dry weather conditions and possible improper use of clothianidin and said that, despite the 9 years of its use, the role of this systemic pesticide has not been clearly established.

Astonishingly, the EPA said that “the information available on incidents does not indicate that clothianidin use is resulting in the loss of large numbers of honey bee colonies in the U.S. The available information instead seems to indicate that the seed treatment use pattern may result in some sporadic incidents affecting individual bees (in some cases, many bees), but there has not been widespread colony or population losses that would indicate the potential for serious harm.”

The EPA’s decided inaction produced plenty of strong responses.  We will discuss them in a follow up story.  Stay tuned!