Category Archives: EPA

Powerful Poisons Interact to Attack the Industrious Honey Bee

In and of themselves pesticides may not be the sole culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Could understanding the synergisms between these chemicals help solve the mystery of CCD?

Beeswax Candles--Courtesy of Roberrific/Flickr Creative Commons

The snowstorm is looming. Tom Theobald, Boulder Colorado bee keeper, will retire to his honey house to watch the early winter flakes dance in the cold air.  There, he will be “doing a run of hand-dipped beeswax candles.”  After all, when the power goes out he always reverts to the work of small and industrious insects, the honey bees, whose burning wax will shed light in his cabin.  Theobald can enjoy the process of making beeswax candles and can survive the exit of the bees from his life were his colonies to continue to wane because of CCD. Commercial bee keepers, as he says, cannot–as they are the most affected economically by the decline of the bees.   While one may be able to pinpoint the role of one specific pesticide in CCD,  the mystery of CCD is intensified as the interactions between the many chemical ingredients used in 21st century American agriculture become apparent.

Theobald takes my call on November 1, 2011, just before the storm.   This time we don’t focus merely on the systemic pesticide chlothianidin, but rather discuss the complexity of synergisms, the interactions of various pesticides on the health of the hive and the bee.  Theobald confides that fungicides “only entered his consciousness just recently,”  as part of a larger investigation into neonicotinoids, nicotine-derived pesticides.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, fungi are crucial to the health of the hive.  They break down the pollen inside the hive.  As Theobald points out, fungicides disrupt the bee’s intestinal flora.  Bee bread is only a partly digested product that needs intestinal flora to be metabolized.  Fungicides, instead, “decrease the microbial diversity of the bee’s food source” according to David Doll, Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.  However, since fungicides, like pesticides, are required for a profitable crop, they become an integral element of the pollination process and therefore pose health risks to honey bees.

According to David Doll, fungicides are generally applied around or at bloom when they will adhere to the pollen. Their application during bloom should, therefore, be regulated.    Unlike Europe that errs on the side of caution, banning pesticides until they are proven not to be harmful, in the US there is, as reporter for the GMO journal Deniza Gertzberg points out, “no accurate and complete picture of what pesticides are used, where and in what amounts, or the accurate measures of just what the maximum exposure is in agricultural or urban settings on blooming plants.”

Jan Knodel, Extension Entomologist for North Dakota State University presents guidelines for reducing pesticide poisoning to bees:

As bees work the hardest during bloom, they will thus inevitably bring back the fungicide-laced pollen to the hive where they will store it to be eaten later or where it is eaten immediately, its nutritional value having been altered by the fungicides.

Theobald focuses on the fungicide boscalid in particular.  Introduced in the USA in 2003, boscalid, the active ingredient in the fungicide emerald, is a respiration inhibitor within the fungal cell.  It is highly successful in fighting fungal diseases in fruits, vegetables and grapes that are used for wine.

In the non-committal language of the EPA boscalid is “practically nontoxic to terrestrial animals and is moderately toxic to aquatic animals on an acute exposure basis.”  However, according to the PAN pesticides database,  “population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. […] certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honey bee colonies.”

A recent study by James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences highlights the magnitude of the problem of pesticides like boscalid making their way into the bee’s hives and lacing their food with poison: “on average six different pesticides, and in some cases, as many as 39 pesticides were found in hives across the United States.”   This  study focuses not on one specific pesticide but rather on the presence of multiple pesticides, in fact “98 pesticides and metabolites detected in […] bee pollen alone,” suggesting  the need for research on the synergisms between pesticides that might underlie the demise of the bees.

Theobald echoes the need for research on the potentially lethal synergisms of various pesticides on bees, as he refers to a 2010 report by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension stating the need for such studies, as “some fungicides may affect a bee’s ability to tolerate other pesticides.”

It is not only about chlothianidin.  It is not merely about boscalid.  According to Gertzberg, over 1,200 active ingredients are distributed among 18,000 products nationwide and are now integral to the honey bees’ landscape.  The complexity of the demise of the bees lies in the synergisms between these chemicals.

Water contamination due to hydrofracking in Pennsylvania

According to Environmental Protection Agency study, dangers to environmental and public health caused by hydrofracking wastewater are greater than previously expected

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Tower: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While hydrofracking using the horizontal drilling method, is currently banned in New York, other states, including Pennsylvania, currently use this method to drill for natural gas. Hydrofracking can create major environmental and health problems. These known risks provide a justification to the fears of environmentalists in New York.

Scientists believe that natural gas is better for the environment than burning coal and oil, yet they fear that this new technique for natural gas drilling will harm public health and the environment.  During the process of of hydrofracking, millions of gallons of water laced with dangerous chemicals are injected into rock formations. This creates chemically infused wastewater, which environmentalists believe will eventually contaminate drinking water.

The New York Times uncovered confidential Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, which show that the wastewater being brought to plants has a higher radioactivity than federal regulators believe is safe for these plants to treat effectively. These same documents also show that treatment plants, discharge tainted wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water.

Studies were also found by The New York Times that show that the radioactivity in waste discharged by treatment plants, will never fully dilute in waterways. This water is radioactive because many plants fail to test for radioactivity before discharging the wastewater. The EPA knows this is happening, but hasn’t done anything to fix this problem. With about 71,000 active gas wells, wastewater contamination is a major problem in Pennsylvania. Tests have shown, that the radioactivity in the discharged wastewater can be between hundreds or thousands of times the maximum allowed federal standard for drinking water.

Gas Wells in Colorado Photo Courtesy The New York Times article, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers"

In 2008 and 2009, about half of the waste created by hydrofracking was taken to sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania. Additionally, some of the untreated wastewater has been sent to other states including New York and West Virginia to be treated. Due to the treatment plants’ inability to remove radioactive substances in wastewater before the water is discharged into rivers, which eventually flow to other states and can cause their water to become contaminated.

While the EPA has certainly been concerned about the water quality, they aren’t the only environmental group that’s worried. Experts in Pennsylvania believe that natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but would like to see it harvested in a more environmentally friendly and healthier way. In a New York Times article titled, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers,” John H. Quigley, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conversation and Natural Resources, stated, “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Burying the Problem: Waste Management in the U.S.

What does waste management look like in the United States and how does composting fit into the bigger picture?

Do you operate on the blissful “out of sight, out of mind” principle, believing that to throw something “away” is to vaporize it?  It’s difficult not to, considering how simple waste disposal seems to be – all the average American has to do is haul their garbage outside and wait for it to disappear.  If you carry your thoughts out to the curb with you, however, and allow them to be carted off, following the path of the pizza boxes and the Styrofoam cups, you will quickly realize that all that waste must end up somewhere.  That somewhere – for all refuse that does not make it into the recycling or the yard waste – is usually either a landfill or an incinerator.

Photo courtesy of sepponet/Flickr Creative Commons

Landfills are essentially gigantic repositories of waste where it’s compacted and buried, day after day, until no more will fit and the site is retired.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 3,091 active landfills in the U.S. and more than 10,000 no longer in use.  The average American is responsible for about 4.6 pounds of waste per day, about 55% of which ends up in a landfill.  Though landfills are usually lined with many layers – such as clay and heavy plastic – meant to protect the surrounding environment from waste and any liquid that may leach from it (known as leachate), the EPA has acknowledged that “even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.”  In other words, the waste – which when compacted is almost entirely cut off from oxygen and the microorganisms necessary for decomposition – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and eventually – whether in 30 years or in 300 – the protection systems will fail and the toxins within will seep into the environment.  Even if we discount future pollution, the Earth does not possess unlimited acreage for us to transform into graveyards for the dregs of our material life, so the less waste that ends up in landfills, the better.

Garbage incinerator in Newark, NJ. Built in 1990, it runs 24/7 and can burn up to 2,300 tons of garbage a day. Photo courtesy of Genista/Flickr Creative Commons

Another 12.5% of our waste is incinerated.  While recently European countries like Denmark have taken advantage of improved waste burning technology to reduce pollution while generating heat and electricity from the combustion of waste, the U.S.’s 87 waste-to-energy incinerators are all more than 15 years old and do not match up in either efficiency or safety.  While health effects stemming from incinerators have not been widely investigated, it is known that the combustion of certain materials found in the waste stream can lead to the release of toxic chemicals like dioxin, which according to the World Heath Organization “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”  The Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, in their book Waste Incineration & Public Health, admits to having “a substantial degree of concern for the incremental contribution to dioxins emissions from all incinerators on a regional level and beyond.”  Though incineration has the potential to generate significant amounts of energy safely, the U.S. system would need to be revamped in order for it to become an attractive option.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produces upwards of 34 million tons of food waste per year, which constitutes over 14% of the entire waste stream.  In 2009, less than 3% of that food waste was recycled, meaning that compostable waste “now represents the single largest component of M[unicipal] S[olid] W[aste] reaching landfills and incinerators.”  Composting efforts – aside from returning nutrients integral to plant life to the soil – divert mass from the waste stream, reducing the overall amount that ends up in landfills and incinerators.  New York City’s Barnard College has already taken the first step towards reducing its waste, its on-campus BioX composting machine taking leftover food from the dining hall and “eliminat[ing] the need for putting it into the waste stream,” says Waste Management professor Peter Bower.  However, if we want to make a real dent in the waste stream – both on the small scale of the college and the large scale of the country – we will need to amplify efforts to recycle food scraps and raise awareness, encouraging people to reduce refuse at the source.

The Disappearance of the Buzz: is Chlothianidin the Culprit?

Chlothianidin, a neonicotinoid, may be one of the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder.     Why is it still on the market?

“Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”  Rachel Carson’s call to arms is as current today as it was in 1962.  The use of pesticides in America’s farmlands today continues to create concern regarding the ease of legalization and laxness of regulation.

Clothianidin and CCD (Photo courtesy of Timw_brap)

The disappearance of bees across the globe remains an open question, although clear attention is being paid to pesticides as potentially contributing factors.   The connection of pesticides to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is an example of both the lack of regulation and of supervision at the federal level when it comes to marketing and distributing highly noxious chemicals.  The story of one pesticide in particular, however, highlights the recognition that, as Paul Brooks, Carlson’s editor, says: in our “overorganized and overmechanized age, individual initiative and courage still count.”

While scientists agree that CCD is “a syndrome caused by many different factors, working in combination or synergistically,” research continues to focus on pesticides.  One pesticide in particular is raising a buzz in the bee community as well as on the federal level.  The case of chlothianidin, a neonicotinoid (considered a “green” pesticide because it is derived from nicotine), underscores the difficulties encountered in challenging large manufacturing companies and the EPA.

This nicotine-derived pesticide, that the EPA registered conditionally in 2003, is a systemic pesticide.  It is, as Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper, points out, “incorporated into the system of the plant when the seed germinates.”  It is thus more appealing to the farmer.  Spraying cycles are less frequent and the pesticide kills all unwanted pests: “any insect which chews or sucks on the plant ingests the pesticide and dies.”  The problem here of course lies in selectivity: how does one save the good bugs from the bad bugs?  How does a bee keeper keep his bees from pollinating pesticide-treated corn in the hundreds of acres surrounding their beehive?

The answer is quite simple.  He cannot.  We cannot.  As Dave Hackenberg,  Pennsylvania’s largest bee keeper explains in a phone interview on October 17, 2011:  “you can’t build a fence around [the bees]  like you would with a cow […] The honeybees are going to fly for miles in each direction.  The colonies are going to bring [neonicotinoids] home.”  The problem with neonicotinoids is a complex one, as Hackenberg suggests in his interview with me:

In researching the effects of one of the neonicotionoids, chlothianidin, Theobald points out that two thirds of the bee colonies of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, died in May 2008, 99% of them showing high levels of chlothianidin.  It took Germany only two weeks to ban the chemical.  Soon Italy and Slovenia followed suit.

So why is the United States lagging in its response to banning it?  In researching the history of chlothianidin Theobald revealed the EPA scientists’ comments of February 2003: “This compound is toxic to honey bees.  The persistence of residues and the expression of chlothianidin in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual stability of the hive.”

And yet the pesticide was approved by the EPA for use.  In April 2003, the EPA gave a registration to Bayer, the manufacturing company, that was conditional on its completion of a chronic honey bee study recommended by EPA scientists that would evaluate and confirm the possibility of toxicity.

In 2008, the results of the Bayer study, held under wraps since 2006, were made public.  They showed bees had been unaffected by the use of chlothianidin.  As Tom Theobald points out in “Pesticide Blowout,” “four colonies of bees were set in the middle of one hectare [..] of canola planted from treated seed, with the bees free to forage over thousands of surrounding acres in bloom with untreated canola, which they surely did.  What do you think the results were? They were exactly what Bayer wanted, of course.”

On December 8, 2010, representatives from several beekeeping associations wrote a letter to the EPA highlighting the “imminent hazard” posed by chlothianidin and requesting that the EPA issue a “stop use order.”   The EPA responded in February 2011 that the “imminent hazard” was not supported by data, evidence, or explanation: there was no case for issuing a “stop use order.”

The outcome: the pesticide is still on the market, waiting until 2012 for the EPA to assess the hazard it poses to honey bees. In Europe, the ban seems to have been rapid and efficient.  In the United States, the battle to ban chlothianidin remains an uphill one.