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Move to change how U.S. tracks pesticide use sparks protest

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Last year, Alan Kolok, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Idaho, published a study that found the incidence of cancer in counties across 11 western U.S. states was correlated with the use of farm chemicals called fumigants, which kill soil pests. The fine-grained analysis was feasible, he says, because a U.S. government database made timely, county-level statistics on pesticide use publicly available.

Now, Kolok is one of many scientists concerned that changes to the National Pesticide Use Maps database will make it far less useful to scientists. Last month, he joined more than 250 researchers and dozens of public health and environmental groups in urging the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which oversees the database, to reconsider moves to reduce the number of chemicals it tracks and to release updates less frequently.

The agency says the changes are being driven, in part, by budget constraints and a desire to align the pesticide survey with its other research programs. But in an open letter to USGS, critics say the changes endanger a database that provides “vital information and tracks trends that are not available anywhere else.”

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The USGS data have played a role in more than 500 peer-reviewed studies, the letter notes, including highly cited works on the impact of pesticides on public health, water quality, and ecosystems. Instead of reducing the database’s scope and frequency, the critics say USGS should be expanding it in order better track the estimated 540 million kilograms of pesticides used annually in the United States. “We need credible sources of data to be able to study and understand what this widespread pesticide use means to the health of people and the environment,” the letter states.

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At its height, the USGS database, which dates to 1992, tracked the shifting use of more than 400 chemicals to control insects, fungi, weeds, and other pests. Each year, the agency typically released preliminary maps documenting pesticide use
2 years prior. To make the maps, agency staff combined farm data on pesticide use on specific crops—purchased from Kynetec, a company based in the United Kingdom—with crop acreage data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In recent years, however, USGS has narrowed its approach. The most recent data release, which covered 2018 and 2019, included only 72 compounds that USGS judged to be especially important because of their widespread use and toxicity. In a statement, the agency said the shorter list aligns the survey with “the list of pesticides that USGS routinely collects data on for water quality purposes.”

On 25 May, the agency said there are no immediate plans to expand the list. It also said that, from now on, it would not release the preliminary data every year. Instead, USGS expects to release its next full report, covering 2018 to 2022, in late 2024; reports will be published every 5 years starting in 2029. The schedule change could save the agency roughly $100,000 each year.

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Many scientists aren’t happy with those decisions. “This plan to just keep the program running on life support does not reflect how important it is,” says Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. Having to wait 5 years for data, he argues, will make it impossible for researchers to detect trends and potential problems early and address them quickly. The data are “basically just a history lesson at that point,” he says. “What’s the point … if you’re going make it harder for the public to use the data in any meaningful way?”

Others say the agency should be tracking more pesticides, not fewer. “There are literally hundreds of active ingredients and thousands of products that are applied on croplands,” notes Christy
Morrissey, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan who studies pesticide impacts on birds and insects. Researchers say USGS should not only restore its original tracking list—which included antibiotics such as oxytetracycline and streptomycin—but also add any new farm chemicals approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The most widespread pollutants today aren’t necessarily going to be the most widespread in 5 or 10 years,” says Donley, who notes that EPA approves about five new products each year.

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Some scientists also want USGS to restart efforts to track one of the fastest growing uses of pesticides: seed coatings that protect against, for example, plant diseases or nematodes. Kynetec stopped tracking chemicals used to coat seeds in 2014 because surveys were deemed too complicated to conduct accurately. One result is that researchers are now unable to track the full extent of neonicotinoids, controversial chemicals that have been linked to dwindling bee populations. (In January, researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that relied on USGS data from 2008 to 2014, when it still included coated seeds. The study concluded that neonicotinoids had harmed populations of the western bumble bee.)

When this article was published, neither USGS nor its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, had formally responded to the scientists’ pleas.

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