ALBANY — An official with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation urged more research and cited confusion about federal regulation of seeds treated with pesticides as lawmakers move to ban certain chemical pest control tied to toxic neurological impacts and developmental deficiencies in children.
At the end of session in June, senators voted to prohibit the sale of neonicotinoid or “neonics” pesticides and insecticides in passing the Birds and Bees Protection Act, which would also ban the substance from coated seeds, including for corn, soybean and wheat crops.
The measure died in the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee.
“As DEC and New York state move forward, our decisions about regulatory actions with regard to neonicotinoids must be science-based,” said Scott Menrath, DEC’s Bureau of Pesticides Management director. “... Looking for alternatives is, I guess, tricky business. It’s something that is not necessarily our focus.”
Menrath spoke to the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee on Monday during a public hearing to examine the impact of neonics pesticides on pollinators and the environment in the Legislative Office Building in Albany.
The hearing started at 11 a.m. and continued through Monday evening with 14 panels of witnesses, including state officials, medical and scientific experts and environmental researchers, advocates and other professionals.
Beekeepers in the state have lost more than 40% of their bee colonies almost every year over the last decade, and the reliance on neonics is a large contributing factor, bill sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, said in May.
Menrath stressed the department relies on Cornell Cooperative Extension and other environmental researchers to find safer alternatives.
“That’s a subject that is complicated and beekeepers have specific issues, so there’s lots of research that needs to be done,” he said.
If passed, the Birds and Bees Protection Act would provide targeted, science-based restrictions by banning the direct application of neonic pesticide on ornamental plants and turf in 2023 and banning the sale of neonic-treated seeds for corn, soybean and wheat crops in 2024 and giving the DEC authority to regulate neonic-treated seeds and implement additional regulations on the pesticide users that harm pollinators, bees or birds.
Menrath declined to comment on the proposed legislation.
Neonicotinoids are among the most popular pesticides in the world,
“They are deliberately engineered to attack the nervous system,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a Boston College biology professor and former department of Preventive Medicine chair and dean of global medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “They attack a receptor in the nervous system ... and that’s how they kill unwanted insects. The problem with neonicotinoids is the insects they target is not restricted to unwanted insects.”
Children and pregnant women are much more vulnerable to the dangers of neonics, he said.
The DEC has requested clarification on regulation of treated seeds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Menrath said, but has not received a response. He did not know more about when or why.
Other states have also requested updated treated seed categories and regulations.
The EPA continues to review health and ecological impacts of the use of neonicotinoids and related products.
In January 2020, the agency made preliminary recommendations for additional management and restrictions of neonics use to limit exposure to bees. The decision also showed the chemicals’ likely negative impact on pollinators and endangered species.
The public can submit comments on the preliminary decision until June 2022. The EPA will issue a final decision in October 2022.
The DEC has not regulated treated seeds, leaving the determinations to the federal government under the Federal Seed Act.
Certain pesticides are registered to be used on treated seeds. Menrath did not know of a pesticide in the state that is prohibited for use on seeds.
“We always receive applications for various pesticides and neonicotinoids are no different,” he said. “If there are new active ingredients or major changes in use, those go through an extensive review by Health Department staff.”
Neonics, an environmentally damaging pesticide, harms bees, birds, fish, pollutes the water supply and can pose health risks, according to a 2020 Cornell University report on state neonicotinoid insecticides.
A 2019 National Resources Defense Council report showed the toxins present in several samples of Long Island groundwater within the Long Island acquifer, or the community’s drinking water. The DEC did not find sufficient levels of the chemicals to warrant further remediation, Menrath said.
“We continue to investigate Long Island — we are very concerned,” he said. “But in terms of action levels for remediating or implementing some type of program, we have not found those except in particular instances where spills had occurred.”
Assembly member Jennifer Lunsford, D-Perinton, pressed how the agency determines when to intervene.
Menrath replied the DEC conducts several studies to determine toxicology exposure.
“The risk of pollinators varies tremendously depending on the active ingredient or even the specific product ...the application site, and the method of application,” he said. “...But in terms of action levels for remediating or implementing some type of program. We have not found those except in particular instances where spills had occurred.”
The agency does not review agricultural machinery or other equipment a pollinator might use to distribute the pesticides, Menrath said in response to questions from lawmakers concerned about how far the toxic substance drifts upon application.
Reports of neonics’ adverse impacts on humans are sent to the EPA or National Pesticide Information Center, which distribute reports to states across the nation.
The DEC does not maintain data about human exposure to neonics.