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A researcher has found outdated pesticide labels could pose a threat to pollinators such as honey bees.

More than 30% of pesticide labels fail to follow Environmental Protection Agency recommendations and provide incorrect information about their toxicity to pollinators, according to a study by Oregon State University Extension Service.

Experts say inconsistent labels may cause unintentional pesticide misuse, which could threaten honey bees, worth some $20 million to American agriculture.

The research, experts say, may help regulators identify labels that need amending. In the meantime, it has prompted OSU Extension to offer better education to pesticide applicators.

The discovery was made by an unsuspecting young student.

"I kind of stumbled onto this research project by accident," said Matthew Bucy, a pesticide registration specialist at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Bucy is a recent OSU graduate. As an undergraduate honors student last year, his job was to read through hundreds of pesticide labels and update a data table. The work was tedious, and Bucy said he did not anticipate his big discovery.

After studying 232 insecticide labels, Bucy said a pattern became clear. About a third of the labels deviated from EPA recommendations. Many, for example, didn't list accurate details about their residual or acute toxicity.

Bucy's accidental discovery evolved into a major research project that didn't end when he graduated.

Rose Kachadoorian, pesticide specialist at ODA and formerly an adviser on Bucy's thesis committee, said the pesticides weren't misbranded or mislabeled intentionally; they were simply outdated.

"They're just old. A lot of the language is what we call legacy language," said Kachadoorian.

Kachadoorian said the problem of outdated labels seems to stem from the fact that the EPA is continuously short-staffed.

Kachadoorian, Bucy and experts at the American Association of Pesticide Control Officials formed a working group to address the labeling problem, but because EPA is understaffed, the researchers say they expect changing label language will take time.

Kachadoorian said her vision is also to create a more standardized labeling system for pesticides. Look at FDA pharmaceutical labels, she said, and they all have similar formatting. You know where to look on the label to find things like dosage and possible side effects. But pesticide labels look different across companies, making information harder to find. Kachadoorian's working group will encourage more consistency.

In the meantime, the researchers say ODA and OSU are working to improve applicator education workshops and materials to include information about how to interpret a label that doesn't adhere to EPA recommendations.

Andony Melathopoulos, assistant professor and pollinator specialist for OSU Extension, has trained more than 6,700 applicators in Oregon since 2018 and plans to train more with the new information.

The researchers encourage farmers to take advantage of recertification courses, educational materials and events so they will be better equipped to protect pollinators.

Bucy said his groundbreaking research as a student led to his job in pesticide work at ODA, where he hopes to continue helping the agricultural community.

"I read a few hundred labels. Why not read a few hundred — or thousand — more?" he said.

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