Alameda County — Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, whose district includes the Tri-Valley, introduced legislation Feb.15, that would ban non-agricultural use of five pesticides that scientists and environmentalists believe kill bees, butterflies and birds.
Bauer-Kahan’s bill would end the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on lawns, gardens and golf courses, but continue to allow them at agricultural sites.
“Many people cultivate gardens hoping to improve pollinator populations without realizing that household pesticides can kill entire colonies,” Bauer-Kahan said during an online news conference with representatives of three environmental groups – Environment California, National Resources Defense Council, and California Native Plant Society.
The Democrat said her bill, AB 2146, aims at stopping chemical use that “causes unmitigated harm to pollinators, without targeting any part of our food supply.”
Opponents, however, contend that the legislation would prohibit homeowners from reducing pests that carry diseases and cause destruction, despite the fact that the chemicals in question — if used properly — were deemed safe by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The specific pesticides — imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, dinotefuran and acetamiprid — are classified as neonicotinoid, or neonic pesticides, which strike insect nerve cells, killing them. According to the American Bird Conservancy’s website, a 2013 study on birds found the pesticides in hundreds of products, including insect sprays, seed treatments, soil drenches, tree injections and flea treatments for dogs and cats. The organization said neonics are toxic for birds, stay in soil for months, and can be detected in food.
An Internet search found the pesticides available for purchase online under their chemical names, but also as active ingredients in several brand name products. The most commonly used, imidacloprid, for example, is an active ingredient in BioAdvanced 3-in-1 Ready-To-Use Insect Disease & Mite Control and Merit Insecticide Granules; Dinotefuran is found in Green Light Tree & Shrub Insect Control, manufactured by The Scotts Company, and in Ortho Tree & Shrub insecticide.
The advocacy group, The Center for Food Safety, lists dozens of products containing the chemicals on its website (bit.ly/Indy_Bees).
Bauer-Kahan said California’s beekeepers lost nearly 42% of their colonies last year, one of their worst years on record. Evidence is mounting, she said, that the “pesticides are a critical piece of the problem.” However, pollinators are necessary for many of California’s leading crops, worth $50 billion annually.
Laura Deehan, state director at Environment California, said California has 1,600 species of native bees, and one in four is in danger of extinction. She said butterflies also are endangered, including the monarch butterfly, which used to number in the millions along the west coast, but has dropped “to a tiny fraction.”
Deehan said recent studies also show neonics as culpable in bird loss.
“Our skies now have 13% fewer birds in them flying across the air than they did in just the 1960s,” she said. “The drastic decline in these numbers is truly disturbing.”
California would not be the first to ban some use of neonic pesticides. In 2018, the European Commission, which implements policies for the European Union, banned the outdoor use of clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam after studies showed they could adversely affect bees. France banned acetamiprid.
Maine and New Jersey already have passed laws that ban most non-agricultural uses of neonics, said Lucas Rhoads, an attorney with the environmental advocacy organization, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The EPA in 2020 also limited when neonics can be applied to blooming crops, as it works with the pesticide industry to create policies for their use.
Rhoads said a DPR study found at least one neonic in 92% of water samples in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties and 58% of Northern California’s urban samples.
“That is really concerning,” Rhoads said. “Neonics have been linked with increased risk of developmental, neurological and reproductive harm in mammals.”
Bauer-Kahan’s legislation, co-authored by Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, would take effect in 2024, if approved and signed by the governor.
“We need to act immediately to save the bees and protect our pollinators,” Bauer-Kahan said. “The chemicals are harmful to bee populations and dangerous for humans to ingest.”
Karen Reardon, a spokesperson for the industry trade group, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), said neonicotinoids are “a very environmentally friendly class of chemistry” that represent a significant advancement over what came before.
“Our members stand behind this chemistry,” Reardon said.
Reardon, who counts pesticide manufacturer Bayer Environmental Science among its members, said RISE opposes this type of measure because the products are thoroughly vetted, tested and regulated by the EPA and California DPR. Both government agencies have determined neonics are safe, if used according to their labels, she said.
Reardon called the legislation unnecessary because it was introduced shortly before the DPR was set to release a study on the use of neonics. She called the products essential for do-it-yourself customers who cannot afford a professional service to tackle problems, including bed bugs and insects that bore into trees.
Should California ban the pesticides, the companies would comply with the law, she said.
“I think it would be extremely unfortunate given the number of people in California who need access to their own pest control products to do their own pest control management,” she said.
ScottsMiracleGro, which is not a member of RISE, published a statement on its website (bit.ly/Indy_ScottsStatement) — not in direct response to Bauer-Kahan’s bill — that said the company’s Ortho line became the first major brand to begin removing neonics from its outdoor garden control products in 2016 because of “consumer preference.” Neonics, the company said, remain in less than 1% of its outdoor products.
“In contrast to the vast scientific record that supports the safe use of glyphosate, research on neonics is ongoing,” the statement said. “Even so, today there is no scientific conclusion that this concern is valid. Indeed, farmers continue to use neonics as a productive tool, and they remain in good standing with the U.S. EPA. However, the amount of visibility over this debate fueled consumer concern about the issue.
“While we chose to remove neonics from our garden products, we remain opposed to state or local legislative proposals to ban the ingredients. Government action around these issues should be determined, not by politics, but by a fact-based regulatory system that determines the registration and re-registration of these and all pesticides. This time-tested, science-backed approach continually vets and approves the uses and labeling of active ingredients.”
Leia Bailey, a spokesperson for the DPR, said the agency began re-evaluating products containing imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and dinotefuran in 2009, following a series of studies indicating they might harm pollinators, and is in the “midst of a regulatory process to adopt agricultural neonicotinoid control measures necessary to protect pollinator health.”
The agency is expected to release information soon.
“DPR is using a science-based approach to develop regulations to protect pollinator health,” she said.