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Critics Detail Risks of Colombian Coca Spraying
(from October 2, 2002)

A U.S. State Department report on aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia fails to prove that the pesticide program does not harm the environment or pose safety risks to humans, charge six independent reviews released Monday by scientists and advocacy groups. According to the Environmental News Service, the groups argue that the U.S. cannot authorize more funds for the controversial program until it can rule out health and environmental risks from the spraying.

The State Department report, which includes comments by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was submitted to Congress on September 4 to comply with the requirements of the 2002 foreign appropriations act. The Act requires a determination and report by the Secretary of State that chemicals used in the aerial eradication of coca crops in Colombia do not pose unreasonable health or safety risks to humans or the environment.

But reviews by a variety of experts charge that the State Department report does more to underscore the risks and uncertainties associated with the program than to assess and rule out potential impacts to humans and the environment.

The aerial fumigation program, which the U.S. finances as part of its multibillion dollar Colombian aid package, is designed to eradicate coca and other plants used to manufacture illicit drugs. However, the program has done little to curtail the supply of cocaine that comes into the U.S. every year. Also, critics say the program indiscriminately wipes out legitimate subsistence crops as well as natural plants, and kills birds, mammals and aquatic life.

The chemicals are applied by aircraft and frequently fall on Columbia's indigenous peoples, subjecting them to a variety of health afflictions, critics add.

The aerial spray mixture contains three components: water, an EPA registered formulation of the herbicide glyphosate, and Cosmo-Flux 411F, a surfactant produced in Colombia that helps the herbicide to penetrate the waxy surface of the coca leaves. Glyphosate is manufactured by the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation and is commonly referred to by the trade name Roundup. Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning that any plant exposed to a sufficient amount of the chemical will be killed.

Dr. Ted Schettler, science director at the Science and Environmental Health Network argues that the EPA review does not include enough exposure or toxicity information about glyphosate to prove that it can be safely applied near human habitations. In addition, the reviews by the scientists and advocacy groups charge that a number of concerns that the EPA raised in their analysis were minimized or ignored in the final State Department report to Congress.

"The State Department report glosses over, downplays, or simply ignores many of the concerns and uncertainties emphasized by EPA in its analysis of the aerial coca eradication program," said Jim Oldham, Amazon project director at the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. "The result is a presentation that seems designed to mislead readers and - through exaggerations and incomplete summaries - to obscure the manifold problems associated with the eradication program."

Rachel Massey, a research fellow with the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies, notes that the EPA admitted that its ecological tests of the environmental impacts of glyphosate are based "solely on North American species and ecosystems." Massey further adds, "none of the ecological studies it reviewed were based on the actual herbicide formulation they are using in Colombia."
Massey said. "EPA says it cannot evaluate ecological hazards of the spraying due to lack of data. Given EPA's concerns, on what basis can the State Department claim it has demonstrated ecological safety?

"Because the Department of State has not provided sufficient information" on the herbicide formulation, its toxic properties and environmental impacts and other controversial issues, the agency's report does not meet Congressional requirements, concludes Earthjustice's Anna Cederstav. "In light of this fact, we recommend that the Appropriations Committee withhold financial support for the aerial eradication program."

The State Department's "Report on Issues Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia," is available at: http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/rpt/aeicc/

The independent reviews by scientists and advocacy groups are available at: http://www.amazonalliance.org/scientific/scientific1.htm