If you read a headline declaring that scientists had discovered that up to 75 percent of human food samples were found to be contaminated with some scary-sounding substance, like arsenic, what would you think? (1)

You'd be worried, and rightfully so. But if you then found many paragraphs into the story the scientists admitting that the scary substance is in such minuscule trace amounts that it can't possibly pose a risk to human health, how would your feelings change? In an era of "fake news", you'd feel like that's just what you got.

And you'd be right. How do you trust science when so many journals, not to mention journalists who have poor grasp of science, set out to create panic? Recently, this same kind of charade was pulled by scientists out to promote fear and doubt about neonicotinoid pesticides, and they got their piece in Science magazine, a friendly ideological ally for environmental activists.

Neonicotinoids are a new generation of "targeted" pesticides that have become popular among farmers because they are seed treatments, which means they can control crop-destroying pests without harming beneficial insects, animals and humans. They replaced older broad-spectrum spraying of plants and entire areas. Given their popularity in agriculture, a title like “A Worldwide Survey of Neonicotinoids in Honey” is going to be provocative.

And media attention is clearly what E.A.D. Mitchell of the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland and his team were going for. Honey invokes images of Pooh Bear, while neonicotinoids - good luck pronouncing that if you are not in the science field (use "neonics" for short) - are going to be scary in a sentence next sweet memories of childhood.

But if you don’t know what neonics are, and how they are much better for humans and all of ecology than their predecessors, the title sure sounds scary. Anything linking unpronounceable chemical names with sources of human food sounds scary. That’s the whole reason activists do it. But if you can get past the headline and the abstract you find that the science is not really scary at all, despite what the Washington Post or Danny Hakim at the New York Times may claim.

Here's the science. Mitchell and colleagues got amateurs from around the world to send samples of honey from every continent. They then tested the samples for five neonicotinoid pesticides – imidacloprid, clothianindin, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid and thiacloprid. In 198 of the samples that they received - selected, they said, to eliminate oversampling - 75 percent tested positive for one or more of the neonics; 45 percent of the samples tested positive for 2 or more, and 10% contained four or five.  

From Bees Addicted To Neonics: A Failure Of Science Journalism, which shows corporate media have not improved much.

That's terrifying. If you are a homeopath, at least. Homeopaths believe in a kind of Voodoo, that one drop of something in a large amount of water will have an effect due to "water memory", and these scientists wrote their paper to let environmental fundraisers suggest the same thing about neonicotinoids. So if you don't want to read any farther, and you just want to know if this is a health scare or a health concern, here is the short answer: the levels are too low to biologically make a difference, just like homeopathy. They are so low that they are only detectable now because technology has gotten better. (2) 

Let science show you the way out of activism darkness

Here are three giant red flags if you are simply a pro-science person who wants real answers to complex questions, like how pesticides harm the rest of the environment:

1. Senior author A. Aebi broke the press embargo to give a special interview about the study to the activist site foodingredientsfirst.com and call for an outright ban on neonics;

2. Lead author E.A.D. Mitchell is a member of the infamous International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which was exposed years ago plotting to fabricate studies to get neonics banned;

3. Both Mitchell and Aebi appeared with other anti-neonic activists on a so-called ‘scientists letter’ urging governments to restrict or ban uses of neonic pesticides.  

Corporate science journalists won't dig that deep, they see the name Science magazine and start rewriting press releases, and this passed peer review because it did just what the authors said way down at the bottom - it only showed trace levels of a pesticide in honey. With no context, it sounds horrible. Which has to be considered is what they were hoping to achieve.

Hundreds of years ago, the public knew what a surprising number of people fail to recognize now: the dose makes the poison. From a health perspective, the key issue is the concentration of neonics in honey.  That applies to humans, all vertebrates and even bees. A recently published review by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concluded that adverse effects on bees, like physiological and/or behavioral impairments, aren’t observed until an exposure to 10 parts per billion (ppb). That’s a level 50 times above the Mitchell study’s average total concentration.

So their levels can't even impact bees. They sure can't harm humans. It is truly a trace amount, something that couldn't even have been detected a generation ago.  

If the authors of the paper had been ideologically agnostic, they would have instead used the median aggregated neonic concentrations in their honey samples in their discussion. Those data are right there in the Supplement, the place where contradictory evidence is often hidden to avoid claims of deceit. It shows ranges from a high of 0.3 ppb in North America to 0.04 ppb in Oceania and South America. That’s 3 to 4 orders of magnitude -- 1/300th and 1/4000th -- below the 10 ppb threshold for physiological and behavioral effects on honey bees observed by the IPBES.

The science reality is that, far from collapsing, honey bee populations have been rising on almost every continent in the world (bees don't generally hang out in Antarctica) since neonics were introduced in the 1990s and are presently at 20-year highs in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  The authors got around that confounder by picking one study (Christen et al., 2016) claiming to have detected "molecular effects", whatever that means, in honey bees, without demonstrating any physiological or behavioral consequences at neonic exposures of 0.1 ppb. Since the average total concentration of neonics in the Mitchell study’s sample was ppb, they infer that this neonic exposure bees must be impaired.

When advocates can't ignore the inconvenient truth of field studies showing no problems, they go on the hunt for increasingly subtle, round-about, indirect evidence of behavioral, reproductive or other sub-lethal harm to bees from neonics and use terms like "impaired." Basically, it's the ill-defined vague equivalent of endocrine disruptor hysteria, except in the hive. Mitchell and colleagues do that also, concluded that neonic residues found in honey samples worldwide could constitute a population-threatening chronic pesticide exposure for honey bees 

Mitchell and his co-authors were forced to admit, lest they open themselves up to calls for retraction, that the neonic concentrations they detected in their honey samples are so far below human health safety thresholds that they pose no danger whatever to people.

But they hope no one read that far. 


(1) This happened. Dr. Oz and his go-to scaremongers, the parent group of Consumer Reports, got egg on their faces when it was discovered that the arsenic was put there by nature. This was one of the incidents which caused the pro-science consumer advocacy group American Council on Science and Health to get nationwide attention for a letter to Columbia University demanding he be removed from their faculty. Though actual academics at Columbia also agreed, the university refused to rebuke their most famous celebrity physician.

(2) Each year we push "zero" into the background. It used to be anything lower than one part in a million was zero, then one part in a billion. Soon one part in quadrillion will be common. One drop of a chemical in 11,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools is not going to harm you.