Neonicotinoids in Rivers

The neonicotinoids fiasco has so many familiar elements it’s turning into a classic of its kind. Widespread use of a largely untested pesticide has had consequences no-one in authority apparently anticipated.

Today’s news that our rivers are polluted with neonicotinoids is I suppose as unsurprising as it is depressing. These wonder pesticides were supposed to have no residual effect – that was the point of them. Instead, they will be present in our ecosystem for many years after they have been banned.

Please don’t use this product
They are turning up everywhere, even in remote mountain burns. Why? The best guess is that dogs dosed with neonicotinoid flea treatments brought them there. It’s a typical unintended consequence. Everything is connected. You can’t just use a chemical in a limited way.

Did those dogs have owners who would have thought for a second they might be damaging the environment? Of course not. They would be appalled. As appalled as the gardeners who recently discovered they have been buying neonicotinoid treated “bee friendly” plants. Many will still unknowingly be using neonicotinoids in their greenhouses.

Consumers have very little idea about the products they buy. The government is supposed to protect them and the environment by making sure they don’t contain anything problematic. But governments are slow to react, and in many cases just ignorant of the threats posed by new products. This is why they are supposed to follow the precautionary principle:

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

At the very least, consumers should expect accurate and explicit labelling about what they are buying.

By the way, as a footnote to this sorry tale, the only reason we know about it at all is because of the EU Water Framework Directive “watch list” initiative. The EU required the UK to undertake this monitoring. As yet, the environment agency is yet to comment.