Members of Congress Dining on Food Contaminated with Bird- and Bee-Killing Insecticides

Chemicals Found in Dining Hall Food Have Been Restricted by the European Union due to Deadly Impacts on Pollinators

Contact: Cynthia Palmer, 202-888-7475, Email click here

Clockwise, from top: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Kelly Nelson/Shutterstock; Grasshopper Sparrow, Steve Byland/Shutterstock; Honeydew Melon from the Congressional Dining Halls, Aditi Desai (ABC)

Clockwise, from top: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Kelly Nelson/Shutterstock; Grasshopper Sparrow, Steve Byland/Shutterstock; Honeydew Melon from Congressional Dining Halls, Aditi Desai (ABC)

A study by American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health issued in 2015 found bird- and bee-killing insecticides in nearly every food eaten by the nation's Senators, Representatives, and others who dine in the cafeterias of the United States Congress.

These pesticides, called neonicotinoids, are the nation's most widely used insecticides and persist in soils for months to years. The insecticides were banned by the European Union in 2013 and restricted by Ontario, Canada in 2015 because of their connection to the large-scale disappearance of pollinators. As an earlier ABC study reported, the pesticides are lethal to birds and to many of the invertebrates on which they feed.

(Take action: Tell EPA and Congress to get serious about neonics!)

Most Foods Contained Multiple Neonicotinoids

In two rounds of testing—the first in January and the second in May of 2015—nearly all Congressional cafeteria food tested positive for one or more neonicotinoid insecticide residues. Sixty out of a total of 66 food samples, or 91%, tested positive for the chemicals. Forty-seven (or 71%) of the foods had two or more neonicotinoids.

“These pesticides infiltrate the produce itself and cannot be removed by washing or peeling,” said Cynthia Palmer, Director of Pesticides Science and Regulation for ABC.

“We were surprised to find that most foods contained multiple neonicotinoids, with as many as five in samples of fresh-squeezed orange juice and green bell pepper,” she added.

All of the 38 food samples collected in January contained neonicotinoid residues. In addition to the five neonicotinoids found in the orange juice, 10 food samples (26%) contained four distinct neonicotinoid insecticides, nine (24%) had three neonicotinoids, and eight (21%) had two neonicotinoids. The remaining 10 foods (26%) each had a single neonicotinoid detection.

The May round of testing revealed neonicotinoids in 22 out of 28 food samples (79%), including the five types in bell pepper. Four foods (14%) had four, six foods (21%) had three, eight foods (29%) had two neonicotinoids, and three foods (11%) had one.

“It is almost impossible to avoid eating foods that are contaminated with neonicotinoids in the cafeterias on Capitol Hill. We can reasonably assume that the likelihood for humans to be exposed to neonicotinoids through dietary intakes is the same as for birds, bees, and other pollinators in the environment,” said Chensheng Alex Lu, Associate Professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Neonicotinoids Ubiquitous in Food Supply

Cherry tomatoes, yellow squash, and honeydew melons stood out as the samples with the highest levels of neonicotinoid residues. This result is consistent with the USDA Pesticide Data Program 2013 Annual Summary that showed high residues associated with apple juice and summer squash.

“The neonicotinoid story is one of marketing success overruling common sense, to the detriment of our ecosystems,” said Palmer. “Today's report brings the neonicotinoids' persistence and ubiquity home to Congress—those with the power to fix pesticide regulations.”

Neonicotinoids are used as sprays and soil drenches on fruit and vegetable crops, but their presence on fresh produce represents only a small fraction of the total pounds applied in the U.S. Neonicotinoids also are used as seed coatings on hundreds of millions of acres of commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, and sunflowers, even though many scientists question their capacity to increase yields.

Neonicotinoids as a Driver in Pollinator Declines

There is mounting evidence that neonicotinoids are a primary driver in the bee population declines of the past decade. As for birds, as ABC reported in 2013, a single seed treated with neonicotinoids is enough to kill a songbird. And the elevated levels of these chemicals in many surface waters are already high enough to kill the aquatic invertebrate life on which so many birds, bats, and other pollinators depend.

Beneficial terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms are also killed by the neonicotinoids at extremely low doses. The insecticides are killing the diverse wildlife that pollinates our crops and controls our pests for free.

Implications for Human Health

The human health impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides need further research. While none of the levels of neonicotinoid residues in the foods sampled in this study exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's current “reference dose” (the dose EPA considers acceptable based on laboratory studies), clinical research from Japan indicates that adverse effects may be observed at doses lower than EPA's reference doses.

According to the EPA, neonicotinoids can be damaging to the nervous systems of mammals and are also associated with liver, kidney, thyroid, testicular, and immune system effects. Thiacloprid, one common neonicotinoid, has been designated as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” with thyroid tumors observed in male rats, uterine tumors in rats, and ovarian tumors in mice.

Study Design

ABC teamed with scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to test 66 food samples from Congressional dining halls. The researchers evaluated 38 food samples in January 2015 and 28 in May 2015. Roughly half of the samples were purchased from the House Longworth Cafeteria and half from Senate Dirksen Cafeteria, in addition to samples of strawberry topping from the Dirksen frozen yogurt bar.

Food samples were analyzed for seven distinct neonicotinoid insecticides: acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam. Sample analysis took place at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health located in Boston, Massachusetts, under the direction of Dr. Chensheng Alex Lu and Dr. Lin Tao.


American Bird Conservancy is the Western Hemisphere's bird conservation specialist—the only organization with a single and steadfast commitment to achieving conservation results for native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With a focus on efficiency and working in partnership, we take on the toughest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on sound science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation.