Neon­i­coti­noid In­sec­ti­cides Are Killing Song­birds

Trillions - - In This Issue -

It turns out that bees and other in­sects are not the only vic­tims of neon­i­coti­noid in­sec­ti­cides. Song­birds and other birds are also be­ing af­fected – and in much larger num­bers than any­one might have ex­pected.

In new re­search con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan, it was re­vealed for the first time that two of the in­sec­ti­cides most broadly ap­plied world­wide are prov­ing highly toxic to seed-eat­ing song­birds. Those in­sec­ti­cides are im­i­da­clo­prid (a neon­i­coti­noid) and chlor­pyri­fos (an organophos­phate).

Im­i­da­clo­prid is a neu­ro­toxin that does its killing by at­tack­ing the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem of in­sects. It is part of the neon­i­coti­noid class of pes­ti­cides, which work by block­ing transmission of stim­uli in the in­sect ner­vous sys­tem, even­tu­ally caus­ing paral­y­sis and death. As of 1999, it was the in­sec­ti­cide most widely used in the world to con­trol aphids, cane bee­tles, lo­custs and tree pests such as the emer­ald ash borer, fleas, Ja­panese bee­tle lar­vae and more.

This class of pes­ti­cides has un­for­tu­nately also been shown to pose a risk to bees and, be­cause of its wide­spread use, is thought to be a ma­jor cause of what is re­ferred to as “colony col­lapse dis­or­der.” chlor­pyri­fos, in­tro­duced over 50 years ago in 1965 by Dow Chem­i­cal, is used in nearly 100 coun­tries and is ap­plied an­nu­ally to ap­prox­i­mately 8.5 mil­lion acres of crops world­wide. Also a neu­ro­toxin, it in­hibits acetyl­cholinesterase. It is typ­i­cally ap­plied to kill worms and a va­ri­ety of other in­sects. Its ef­fects have been stud­ied in hu­mans, with the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion cat­e­go­riz­ing it as mod­er­ately haz­ardous to hu­mans; but in high con­cen­tra­tions it has been linked to de­vel­op­men­tal and au­toim­mune dis­or­ders. Con­se­quently, it has been phased out of all res­i­den­tial use in the United States.

Chlor­pyri­fos was so widely un­der­stood to be toxic to a broad range of species that there had been a for­mal ad­min­is­tra­tive pe­ti­tion to ban its use com­pletely in the United States. That pe­ti­tion, filed dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion era, had been put forth by the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil and the Pes­ti­cide Ac­tion Net­work North Amer­ica. When Scott Pruitt be­came head of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency as part of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, de­spite the many sound re­search stud­ies that had sug­gested its tox­i­c­ity, one of his first acts was to deny that pe­ti­tion. His ac­tion took ef­fect on March 29, 2017.

This lat­est re­search, con­ducted un­der the di­rec­tion of Christy Mor­ris­sey, a Univer­sity of Saskatchewan bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor, might be­come a po­tent force in bring­ing those pe­ti­tions back again. De­tailed re­search con­ducted by Mar­garet Eng, a post-doc­toral fel­low work­ing in Mor­ris­sey’s area, showed that seed-eat­ing song­birds are be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected by the two pes­ti­cides un­der re­view.

As Eng said in dis­cussing the study re­sults, “These chem­i­cals are hav­ing a strong im­pact on song­birds. We are see­ing sig­nif­i­cant weight loss and the birds’ mi­gra­tory ori­en­ta­tion be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered.” One rea­son why the cur­rent study is es­pe­cially timely is that re­cent tech­nol­ogy shifts in how the pes­ti­cide is prop­a­gated are mak­ing the seeds in­her­ently more toxic to song­birds. As lead re­searcher Mor­ris­sey said, “In the past, farm­ers might have placed an in­sec­ti­cide into a crop duster and would spray their fields with the in­sec­ti­cide. How­ever, now farm­ers have ac­cess to seeds that in many cases are al­ready coated with neon­i­coti­noids.”

The Univer­sity of Saskatchewan re­search was con­ducted dur­ing a spring mi­gra­tion pe­riod. The sci­en­tists cap­tured spar­rows and fed them daily for three days with ei­ther low or high doses of im­i­da­clo­prid or chlor­pyri­fos. Af­ter feed­ing the birds in this way, the sci­en­tists found that the neon­i­coti­noids ended up al­ter­ing the birds’ mi­gra­tory ori­en­ta­tion and were tied to losses of up to 25% of their fat stores and body mass. The loss of ori­en­ta­tion and body mass caused ma­jor havoc with the birds’ abil­ity to mi­grate suc­cess­fully, with fly­ing range di­min­ished and the birds even los­ing their proper northward ori­en­ta­tion dur­ing mi­gra­tion. Miss­ing proper mi­gra­tion routes could cre­ate missed breed­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and even death. As the re­searchers noted, many small mi­gra­tory song­birds use agri­cul­tural land as part of their mi­gra­tion route, both for rest as well as build­ing up fat stores. The ef­fects were noted not just with neon­i­coti­noid di­ets but also with chlor­pyri­fos-laced ones as well. Shock­ing was that the ef­fects on mi­gra­tion di­rec­tion and fat stores oc­curred af­ter eat­ing as few as “just three or four im­i­da­clo­prid treated canola seeds or eight chlor­pyri­fos gran­ules a day for three days,” ac­cord­ing to Mor­ris­sey.

The study may be­come bet­ter known very soon, as a pro­posed im­i­da­clo­prid ban is cur­rently un­der re­view in Canada. There, the gov­ern­ment is ex­pected to de­cide on pos­si­ble reg­u­la­tory changes in how that pes­ti­cide can be ap­plied, pos­si­bly in­clud­ing a com­plete ban on its use across the coun­try by the end of 2017.

This re­search was con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan’s Fa­cil­ity for Ap­plied Avian Re­search (FAAR), a re­search cen­ter fo­cused on avian health and eco­tox­i­col­ogy. It is the only such fa­cil­ity of its kind in West­ern Canada. Un­for­tu­nately, the univer­sity also has a close re­la­tion­ship with the agro­chem­i­cal in­dus­try.

Need­less to say, if the in­sec­ti­cides are neg­a­tively im­pact­ing in­sects and birds, they are also likely mak­ing hu­mans sick as well.

For­tu­nately, by con­sum­ing or­gan­i­cally grown food in­stead of that which is laced with dan­ger­ous poi­sons, we can choose to not poi­son our bod­ies and our planet.

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