Eight rivers in England have been found to be heavily contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticides, increasing concerns over the survival of several endangered species.
A 2016 study found “acute levels” of neonicotinoid – the world’s most widely used insecticide – in several British rivers. The Waveney on the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, and the Tame in the West Midlands had the highest pollution levels. Other rivers which exceeded pollution limits included the Great Ouse in Bedfordshire, the Ancholme in Lincolnshire and the Wensum in Norfolk. As a whole, half of the 16 rivers tested in England had either chronic or acute levels of contamination. Neighbouring sugar beet fields are believed to be the main source of pollution.
Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. They have been in use since the early 1990s. However, in the late 1990s neonicotinoids came under increasing scrutiny over their environmental impact. The European Union has instituted a temporary ban neonicotinoid use on flowering crops in 2013 due to the harm they cause to bees and other vital pollinators. Worries were also raised that they could harm other species, such as birds and aquatic invertebrates, which play a crucial role in supporting larger ecosystems.
There is currently a growing controversy surrounding neonicotinoids. It follows a number of highly critical reports including research claiming farmers could slash their pesticide use without losses and a UN report that denounced the “myth” that pesticides are necessary to feed the world. No official limits exist in the EU for neonicotinoid pollution in freshwater. But a peer-reviewed scientific analysis published in 2015 recommended chronic and acute levels that should not be exceeded “to avoid lasting effects on aquatic invertebrate communities.” The measured levels are of course higher then recommended.
“The current assumption underlying pesticide regulation – that chemicals that pass a battery of tests in the laboratory or in field trials are environmentally benign when they are used at industrial scales – is false,” says chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ian Boyd. “Vigilance on the scale that is required for medicines does not exist to assess the effects of pesticides in the environment.” He called for a partial Eu ban of neonicotinoids still allowing their use in greenhouses and as a flea treatment for pets.
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