EPA Withholds Pesticide Information While Bees Die

A conservation organization has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to release information about a pesticide linked to dramatic declines in honeybee populations. The pesticide was approved on the condition that the manufacturer study the effects of the chemical on the bee species. The EPA has received the studies but refuses to release them to the public, even though a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was filed.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which made the FOIA request, sued EPA on Aug. 18 for withholding the information. The pesticide, known as clothianidin and sold under the brand name Poncho, is in a class of chemicals linked to collapses of thousands of bee colonies.

Honeybees have been declining for several years in the United States, including a die-off of 36 percent between September 2007 and March 2008. The problem is referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and it is characterized by the disappearance of all adult worker bees in a hive while the queen and immature bees and honey remain. The result is the destruction of the entire hive. Exact causes are unknown. Recent evidence suggests certain pesticides may be contributing to the rapid decline in bee populations.

The collapse of managed bee colonies could be disastrous for U.S. agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the production of one-third of the nation's food is dependent on pollination by honeybees. Pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value, particularly for specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables.

Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid, a chemical that attacks the nervous system of insects, leading to paralysis and death, among other effects. The use of clothianidin is currently suspended in France and Germany because of links between use of the chemical and collapses of honeybee colonies.

Since 1999, France has suspended use of similar pesticides in the same class of chemicals. For instance, another neonicotinoid, IMD, has been the subject of numerous controversies in Europe because of its connection to CCD. French research has found that exposure to even tiny amounts of IMD can disorient bees, which could explain the failure of the insects to return to colonies after flying off on foraging trips. Bayer CropScience, the manufacturer, has repeatedly suggested that other non-manmade causes are behind CCD. Sales of IMD were €556 million in 2007 (about U.S. $784 million), making it the company's top seller among pesticides.

An EPA fact sheet from 2003 states clothianidin is potentially toxic to honeybees, as well as other pollinators, through residues in nectar and pollen. Bayer maintains that clothianidin does not pose long-term risks to bees.

NRDC scientists sought the clothianidin studies for several reasons. First, they want to discover what information the studies contain about the neurotoxin's effects on bees. Secondly, there are concerns surrounding the quality of the study and the standards by which it was designed. NRDC hopes to learn what EPA required of the company and whether the company's response meets those requirements. Finally, they want to learn what else the agency considered and examine how EPA evaluated the information when it decided to leave the pesticide on the market.

Little research has been conducted examining the effects of sublethal dose exposures on bees. It is possible the industry studies contain new information in this area. Existing research, as well as much anecdotal evidence, has convinced French and German agricultural authorities to suspend use of clothianidin until evidence of its safety to bees is established. Despite having the same facts before them, the EPA has not taken similar precautions.

Instead, the EPA has repeatedly used "emergency exemption provisions" under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to approve use of clothianidin in five states. The agency has also used the emergency provisions to approve use of IMD 163 times in 26 states. These emergency exemptions are intended to allow unregistered use of pesticides for a limited time if EPA determines that an emergency condition exists. The Sierra Club is urging EPA to suspend use of neonicotinoids until sublethal doses are shown to be safe for bees.

EPA's director of pesticide programs expressed "great disappointment" in NRDC's action and defended the agency's activities regarding CCD. In an Aug. 21 letter, Debra Edwards described CCD as a "matter of serious concern" and noted voluntary measures the agency is undertaking to deal with the matter. Edwards also claimed that EPA needs more time to fully respond to the FOIA request. If bees are likely to be exposed, EPA requires pesticide manufacturers to conduct bee toxicity tests before a new pesticide may be registered and marketed.

This is not the first time that NRDC has had to seek legal intervention to extract pesticide information from EPA. NRDC claims that EPA's pesticide program has repeatedly refused to disclose information in response to FOIA requests until months or even years after the deadline. Several times, federal judges have rebuked the Office of Pesticide Programs in cases NRDC was forced to litigate regarding the EPA's lack of transparency. The group reports that over the last seven years, NRDC has filed several FOIA requests per year for EPA pesticide information, and the agency has not responded on time to any of the requests.

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