Pesticides safety scare over babies

Controversial pesticides linked to declines in bee populations may potentially harm the developing brains of unborn babies, European safety experts have ruled.

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Pesticides linked to declines in bee populations may harm the developing brains of unborn babies, European safety experts ruled

Controversial pesticides linked to declines in bee populations may potentially harm the developing brains of unborn babies, European safety experts have ruled.

They have called for recommended exposure limits for the nicotine-like chemicals to be lowered while more research is carried out.

Three neonicotinoid pesticides are already subject to a temporary ban throughout the European Union because of concerns about harm to bees.

The two-year moratorium takes effect from this month. While accepting the ban, the UK Government has said it rejects the science behind it.

One of the banned chemicals is one of two neonicotinoids now at the centre of a new warning relating to human health.

A statement from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said the insecticide imidacloprid "may affect the developing human nervous system".

Similar concern was expressed about another neonicotinoid called acetamiprid, which is not one of the those affected by the ban.

The move follows research on rats showing that offspring exposed to imidacloprid suffered brain shrinkage, reduced activity of nerve signals controlling movement, and weight loss.

Another rat study found that acetamiprid exposure led to reduced weight, survival, and response to startling sounds.

A panel of experts from the EFSA concluded: "Some current guidance levels for acceptable exposure to acetamiprid and imidacloprid may not be protective enough to safeguard against developmental neurotoxicity and should be reduced."

For imidacloprid, it was proposed that the current limit for people working with the pesticide (acceptable operator exposure level, or AOEL) be reduced from 0.08 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day to 0.06 milligrams.

The same limit reduction was recommended for the acute reference dose (ARfD) which is the amount of a substance that can safely be ingested by anyone over a short time, usually one day.

There was no recommendation to lower the current acceptable daily intake (ADI), the amount that can safely be ingested daily for a lifetime, for imidacloprid which was considered sufficiently protective.

For acetamiprid, the experts called for the current ADI and AOEL of 0.07 milligrams and the ARfD of 0.1 milligrams both to be lowered to 0.025 milligrams per day.

The current ADI for imidacloprid is 0.06 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

The EFSA Panel on Plant Protection Products and their Residues was asked to deliver a scientific opinion on the pesticides by the European Commission.

The experts said more work was needed to assess the risk to human health posed by neonicotinoids.

They wrote: "New studies are needed to clarify whether or not neonicotinoids, and their active (toxic) metabolites, can enter the brain across the BBB (blood-brain barrier, a natural "firewall" that keeps out toxins) and to quantify any such capacity at all stages of development."

The panel also suggested making it obligatory to carry out studies of developmental neurotoxicity during the process of licencing pesticides in the EU.

It recommended that criteria for the mandatory submission of neurotoxicity studies be established. These could include a step-by-step strategy that progresses from laboratory tests to animal experiments if the initial results raise concerns.

Marco Contiero, European policy director on agriculture at the environmental group Greenpeace, said: "Given the fact that these experts deal with human beings and not bees and pollinators, what they say should clearly trigger a serious response.

"The first question we should ask is, are these compounds needed? There are on the market non-chemical alternatives perfectly capable of dealing with pests. They should be supported with money and research.

"We would like the EU to adopt policies that have the aim of eliminating pesticides. We need to get out of the vicious circle of looking for new chemical compounds to solve the problems of previous compounds, only to find that they also have unforeseen problems."

Professor Alan Boobis, an expert in biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, said: " Whilst there is uncertainty in the interpretation of the findings, EFSA concluded that it would be prudent to reduce most of the reference values for these compounds, pending further research to clarify the uncertainties.

"The reduction in the reference values in most cases was modest. Whilst there is clearly a question mark over the possible effects of these compounds on the developing brain, the conclusions of EFSA do not suggest that exposure of humans to these compounds at the levels that occur normally in food or in the environment is a cause for concern."