Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides used widely in the U.S., are thought to be responsible for the mass disappearance of entire bee colonies.

Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire via AP Images

As the European Union moves to phase out 22 toxic pesticides, a new study raises the question of what will happen to crops without them. In the United States, growers rely on many pesticides that other countries have banned.

Many farm groups in the U.S. argue that there are no acceptable alternatives to these pesticides – that without them, crop yields would drop. But when it comes to one major crop – soybeans – one controversial pesticide class known as neonicotinoids may actually do nothing to help soy crops, according to a new federal study.

“There are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study says. Previous studies have shown that in most cases, there isn’t a difference in yield between soybean seeds treated with these pesticides and soybean seeds that didn’t receive any insect control.

In many cases, Europe is far ahead of the United States when it comes to banning certain pesticides. Here are five pesticides allowed in the U.S. but prohibited elsewhere:

1. Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are the main suspect in the mysterious mass disappearance of entire bee colonies and work as nerve agents on the bees. In 2013, the European Union voted to ban three of the most common: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Those pesticides, and others in the neonic class, are still used widely in the United States, to much controversy. Despite a 2013 lawsuit from a coalition of activists and beekeepers, the EPA has said it will continue to review evidence of neonics’ effects on bees until 2018.

2. Paraquat, a pesticide linked to Parkinson’s disease, is banned in China and the European Union but not the U.S. It’s highly toxic and kills weeds on contact. A 2009 UCLA study found that a person exposed to paraquat and two other pesticides is three times as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. Paraquat also can cause kidney damage and difficulty breathing. The EU voted to ban paraquat in 2007, and China approved a ban in 2012. Paraquat is famous for two things: the Drug Enforcement Administration’s spraying of Mexican marijuana fields in the 1970s, and being a leading agent of suicide in Asia and other areas.

3. A volatile and toxic pesticide called 1,3-D (short for 1,3-Dichloropropene) is one of the most heavily used pesticides in California. Also known as Telone, the chemical is actually a gas, or a fumigant in pesticide speak. Growers inject it into the ground to sterilize the soil before planting. But the gas evaporates easily; sometimes, it escapes from beneath its tarp and travels into nearby communities, where it poses a cancer risk to residents. The EU began phasing it out in 2007 because of its risk to humans and animals. There aren’t national numbers for the U.S., but in California, the use of 1,3-D is on the rise.

4. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, will soon to be banned in the Netherlands. Brazil is considering a ban. Ontario, Canada, banned it for home use as a “cosmetic” pesticide (chemicals that keep your yard looking nice). This year, Sri Lanka banned it. Scientists suspect it may be the culprit in widespread kidney disease among agricultural workers in Sri Lanka, India and Central America. It’s the best-selling herbicide in the world, according to the Ag Journal. And it was the most heavily used pesticide in the U.S. in 2007, according to the most recent numbers available from the EPA.

5. A popular herbicide called atrazine is the pesticide most commonly found in American drinking water. The European Union banned it in 2004 but the EPA re-evaluated and OK’d atrazine use in 2009. While it breaks down quickly in soil, it tends to hang around in water. Almost 90 percent of drinking water in the U.S. has atrazine in it, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data by the Pesticide Action Network. The weed killer messes with hormones, affects the immune system and is linked to birth defects. A New York Times investigation in 2009 found that levels of atrazine in some communities’ drinking water have spiked, sometimes for longer than a month. Residents were not told, mainly because local water authorities didn’t know about the pesticide. Forty-three water authorities that did know sued atrazine’s manufacturer, Syngenta.

This story was edited Robert Salladay and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.
Rachael Bale can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @Rachael_Bale.

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Rachael Bale is a reporter and researcher for The Center for Investigative Reporting. Previously, she worked at KQED in San Francisco and The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism nonprofit in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaign finance in the 2012 election. A California native, she has a bachelor's degree in political science from Reed College and a master's degree in journalism from American University.