In a packed auditorium at York U, scientists from Europe, Asia, and North America have gathered to discuss the fallout from the world's most widely used insecticides.
A lot of attention is being paid to how controversial neonicotinoids are messing with pollinators like bees. But another question is buzzing among attendees around the edges of the April 19 symposium: what are neonic-laced foods doing to humans?
Medical researcher Kumiko Taira, chair of the international Task Force on Systemic Pesticides (TFSP) public health working group, flew in from Japan to share her findings with the audience of researchers, policy-makers, NGOs and industry players - Monsanto's Canadian VP is reportedly here somewhere. Taira's take home message: neonicotinoid pollution is ubiquitous, and continuous exposure through our diet may trigger a raft of neurological symptoms.
Her team found that consuming 500 ml a day of green tea for several weeks or months was linked to tremors, headaches, heart palpitations, muscle pains and short-term memory loss. "Those were originally thought to be caused by caffeine, but neonics may act synergistically," says Taira.
Green tea consumption isn't the only concern. Taira tells NOW that neonicotonic symptoms were also tied to eating 500 g of fruit a day for 10 days (for adults, two pears, two peaches, a bunch of grapes or half a melon). At least that's what she's discovered in Japan.
Taira is clear that more research is needed around the globe, but she warns, "We are facing a silently increasing danger of neonic pollution in humans. Who knows the critical levels of neonics exposure?"
It's a question the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is trying to answer. Three years ago it issued a warning that two neonics in particular, acetamiprid and imidacloprid, "may affect the developing nervous system" in unborn children, potentially affecting learning and memory down the road.
The EFSA has suggested substantially lowering acceptable exposure levels and recommends that all neonics be assessed for developmental effects.
"This is going to be the next big story around neonicotinoids," says the David Suzuki Foundation's Ontario and Northern Canada director, Faisal Moola. "We're now seeing that it's not just about bees and other pollinators, it's also about humans. That means we also need to think about neonicotinoids found elsewhere in the environment."
Here in Ontario, which is considered a world leader on regulating neonics, the government is effectively banning their routine use in corn and soy by 2017. (Until now, they've been used on 100 per cent of corn crops and 60 per cent of soy in this province.)
But neonics are approved for use in more than 100 other products. They're in the tick and flea chemicals used on our pets, they're used on golf courses, on one-third of Canadian garden centre plants and a wide range of crops both here and in 120 other countries.
One Harvard study found neonic residues on all 29 fruits and vegetables tested, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has detected imidacloprid in strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, leafy greens and tomatoes. Residues reported didn't exceed maximum limits set by the feds and were, as Public Health Ontario put it, "well below an amount that could pose a human health concern."
But Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray reminds the audience that most neonics have been allowed on the market for years without full scientific assessments. "This is a colossal failure of public policy," says Murray.
The loophole for those approvals was recently closed by the Trudeau government, but Murray adds that we need more independent research. At this point, the minister says, "No one has a clue what the compounding effects of a water-soluble, systemic, in-the-plant neurotoxic pesticide are."
That's the thing about neonics. The very trait that was supposed to make them less toxic to people and the ecosystem - they're generally applied to seeds, not sprayed on fields - means that every cell of the plant ends up containing NNIs.
The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which reviewed more than 1,100 studies on neonics, has been pretty blunt: "Neonics impact all species that chew a plant, sip its sap, drink its nectar, eat its pollen or fruit." While more research on human impact is needed, TFSP founder and chair Maarten Bijleveld van Lexmond tells NOW, "People are getting worried about what's getting into their food." But he says the pesticide industry is pushing back by fanning farmer concerns that yields could drop by a third if they stop using neonics.
"It's not any more a matter of science - it's a matter of money," says Bijleveld van Lexmond.