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Concerning levels of bee-harming pesticides discovered in English rivers

Recent research discovered that over 10% of English river sites contain hazardous levels of pesticides that are toxic to bees and also prohibited by the European Union (EU).

The alarming levels of neonicotinoids, particularly in rivers in the east of England, South East, and West Midlands, expose severe environmental concerns and potential risks to aquatic life and human health.

Damaging presence of neonicotinoids

Of the 283 river sites that underwent examination by the Environment Agency between 2020 and 2022, at least one of the five neonicotinoids was present in 29. It is distressing to note that 55% of these 29 sites exhibited one or more neonicotinoids above the Environmental Quality Standard (EQS) set by the EU, deemed safe for aquatic species. Furthermore, over four times the acceptable limit of one or more pesticides marked 21% of the sites.

The research brought to light the presence of clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam. These pesticides, banned in the UK since 2018 for outdoor crops, are notorious for their harmful impacts on bees and aquatic organisms.

Thiacloprid and Acetamiprid were also identified. The former was prohibited in 2020 due to potential detrimental effects on human health, while the latter, still allowed in the UK, is known to accumulate and damage various living organisms.

Areas with highest concentrations

The east of England, the West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber showcased the highest concentrations of neonicotinoids at single sites. The rivers Ivel, Nene, Ouse, Tame, and Waveney in these regions were the most prevalent for pesticide use.

Tessa Wardley, the Director of Communications and Advocacy at the Rivers Trust, emphasized the likely understatement of the actual extent of neonicotinoid pollution in English rivers due to infrequent and inadequate monitoring by the Environment Agency, especially during wet weather when the risk of rapid flushing of pesticides into rivers is heightened.

Controversy and debate

This revelation coincides with ongoing debates within the government regarding the renewal of the usage of thiamethoxam for the fourth consecutive year. This debate has sparked controversy due to previous emergency authorizations contradicting expert counsel.

The EU Court of Justice, in January 2023, deemed such emergency authorizations of seeds treated with banned neonicotinoids as violations of EU law.

Nick Mole, Policy Officer at Pesticide Action Network UK, termed the findings as “hugely concerning,” urging the UK government to put a halt to ‘emergency’ extensions for the use of banned pesticides and to institute a robust and well-funded monitoring system for all UK water bodies urgently.

Barnaby Coupe, Land Use Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, also criticized the UK government’s ongoing approval of toxic pesticides, which he claims has ignored scientific findings and expert advice, resulting in a significant reduction in wildlife.

Government actions

In response, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) assured that their comprehensive Plan for Water is addressing every source of pollution through enhanced investment, stricter regulation, and tougher enforcement.

They further highlighted the government’s commitment to minimizing the risks and impacts of pesticides and reducing the use of insecticides by farmers through increased funding and sustainable farming incentives.

In summary, the new research has sparked renewed urgency and concern regarding the hazardous levels of prohibited pesticides in English rivers, revealing the far-reaching impacts on wildlife, aquatic life, and potentially human health.

The government is under increased pressure to enhance monitoring, regulation, and enforcement to combat the rising levels of harmful pesticides and to reconsider the allowances and extensions granted for the use of such chemicals in the agriculture sector.

This study was conducted by the Rivers Trust and Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL)

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