A pregnant lady with broccoli
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The fruit and vegetables that Americans bring home and cook up for their families are often laced with pest-killing chemicals known as acetamiprid and imidacloprid, members of the neonicotinoid class.

That sounds gross. Even grosser than these nearly unpronounceable chemical names are new findings out of Europe that the compounds may stunt the development of brains in fetuses and young children.

The discovery, by scientists working with rats for the European Food Safety Authority, has led to calls in Europe to further restrict the use of the neonic pesticides. From a press release put out by the authority:

The [Plant Protection Products and their Residues] Panel found that acetamiprid and imidacloprid may adversely affect the development of neurons and brain structures associated with functions such as learning and memory. It concluded that some current guidance levels for acceptable exposure to acetamiprid and imidacloprid may not be protective enough to safeguard against developmental neurotoxicity and should be reduced.

We say “further restrict” because the use of imidacloprid is already severely restricted in Europe, barred for two years from being used on flowering crops and plants because it kills bees and other pollinators.

In the U.S., by contrast, both chemicals are freely used. Federal government tests have detected imidacloprid on one-fifth of produce sampled, including on 60 percent of broccoli and cauliflower. About 10 percent of produce samples tested positive for acetamiprid, including half of the samples of summer squash.

The New York Times reports that both chemicals are widely used in pesticide products:

Imidacloprid is one of the most popular insecticides, and is used in agricultural and consumer products. It was developed by Bayer, the German chemicals giant, and is the active ingredient in products like Bayer Advanced Fruit, Citrus & Vegetable Insect Control, which can be purchased at stores internationally, including Home Depot in the United States.

Acetamiprid is sold by Nisso Chemical, a German branch of a Japanese company, though it was developed with Bayer’s help. It is used in consumer products like Ortho Flower, Fruit & Vegetable Insect Killer.

The action by European regulators could affect the entire category of neonicotinoid pesticides, however.

James Ramsay, a spokesman for the European Food Safety Authority, which conducted the review, said the agency was recommending a mandatory submission of studies related to developmental neurotoxicity “as part of the authorization process in the E.U.”

“We’re advising that all neonicotinoid substances be evaluated as part of this testing strategy, providing that they show a similar toxicological profile to the two substances we’ve assessed in this opinion,” he said.

Beekeepers, food safety groups, and environmentalists are suing the EPA in an effort to ban neonic insecticides such as these. The new findings out of Europe will create a new sense of urgency for those groups — and hopefully for the federal government, which needs to be doing more to protect Americans and wildlife from the insidious effects of agricultural poisons.