Spraying in Colombia: Is it Safe?

Spraying in Colombia: Is it Safe?
Posted by FoM on August 23, 2001 at 22:12:33 PT
Sibylla Brodzinsky, David Adams & Paul de la Garza
Source: St. Petersburg Times 
In this region of southwest Colombia, a song with an unusual subject is on people's minds these days. It's a ditty about a herbicide. Written by Celimo Hoyos, Damned Glyphosate addresses the U.S.-sponsored aerial eradication of illegal crops in Colombia. "They order the spraying without looking at the calamities," says the song. "They damage our environment and leave behind disease. . . . That's why I damn that damned glyphosate." It could well be referring to farmer Juan Rengifo. 
Last Thursday morning, Rengifo stood amid his shriveling coffee bushes, surveying a lost livelihood. He had no doubt what had transformed his healthy, organically grown beans into desiccated, empty shells. Or what was making the children living on the farm sick with skin rashes, diarrhea and fevers. It was, he would tell you, that cursed herbicide. "Why does the United States do this to me?" asked Rengifo, 44, referring to the drug-destroying crop-dusters that passed over his farm last month, trailing a thick mist of weedkiller. It's a question increasingly on the minds of many of his fellow farmers and Colombia watchers around the world, including members of Congress. Last week, the U.S. State Department, which administers aerial eradication in Colombia, acknowledged publicly for the first time that glyphosate isn't completely harmless. It can cause eye and skin irritation. Still, officials say, while pilots may occasionally hit the wrong crops by mistake, no evidence in Colombia links U.S.-supplied glyphosate to the kind of health problems Rengifo and others claim. Instead, U.S. and Colombian officials say the skin rashes and other symptoms are more likely because of far stronger chemicals, including gasoline and sulfuric acid, used to grow coca and process coca leaves into the paste that yields cocaine. Rengifo, however, says there was no coca on his 12-acre farm. Because he was seeking organic coffee certification for his 26,000 coffee bushes, he says he used neither pesticides nor herbicides. His wife, Nubia Bubano Acosta, said she gets upset when she hears government denials on the news. "The government says that glyphosate does no harm, that the farmers lie, that we are apologists for drug traffickers," she said. "But we don't lie. They are the ones who lie." Skin rashes, high feversIt was market day in the nearby town of Sucre when the spray planes came July 21 to La Granja in the southwestern province of Cauca. Rengifo, who was selling his produce in the town, said he saw the crop-dusters thunder past. He never considered his farm about 20 miles away was at risk. Days later, when his plants started drying up and the small children of Rengifo's farm workers came down with fever, intestinal problems and skin rashes, he says he knew he had been hit. Patricia Garces, 16, said two days after the farm was sprayed her 1-year-old son, Hener Davidson, broke out in a rash and suffered from high fevers. Another child, 5-year-old Roosevelt Solano, got diarrhea. The local health department has declared an alert and is conducting rudimentary studies of the effects of the most recent fumigation in southern Cauca, where an estimated 17,000 acres of coca and poppies, used to make heroin, are grown. Public health officials are keeping a medical history of three segments of the population: sample groups of schoolchildren, pregnant women and adult men who work in the fields. So far, most of the health problems have been seen in children, said Dr. Milton Guzman, public health director in the provincial capital, Popayan. "These are minor ailments, and, in all cases, have been treated adequately," Guzman said, noting children also have suffered headaches and pink eye. He is concerned about the possible long-term health effects that could take years to emerge. Physicians in Cauca, for example, have noticed a surprising rate of leukemia in children born since the aerial spraying began in 1994. "Some say that (glyphosate) does nothing; others say yes it does," Guzman said. "The point is we don't know. But because it is not clear, it is a risk to the population." Guzman is asking the Public Health Ministry to declare a health emergency in the province to free up funds to conduct studies. Study of spraying plannedOpponents of aerial spraying, meanwhile, have called for a halt to the program while tests are being conducted. In an effort to reassure people of its safety, the United States is sponsoring a series of health studies in Colombia. If the studies find any negative effect on public health, the spray policy might be reconsidered, according to Rand Beers, the assistant secretary of state who helps to oversee U.S. anti-drug policy in Colombia. "What we would be looking for is long-term serious effect, or severe, acute effect. . . . If it were a mild rash that went away in five days, that would be of less concern, not no concern, but less concern to us than something that persisted," Beers said. He said officials also are reviewing a program of compensation for farmers whose crops are sprayed by mistake or have taken ill because of the spraying. While Cauca and other coca- and poppy-growing areas have been fumigated occasionally since the early 1990s, health complaints had not become widespread until now. Colombian and U.S. government officials suggest leftist rebels opposed to the spraying program could be behind the complaints. Beers also suggested people are making up illnesses because they're losing money as a result of eradication. "There are very dark interests at work," said Colombian National Narcotics Director Gabriel Merchan, who oversees counter-drug programs. To counter the negative publicity, Merchan said the government wants to use international auditing experts to monitor the spray program. He suggested a far more likely explanation for the health problems were the chemicals peasants use in the illegal production of cocaine and heroin. "We have proof that the great majority of complaints are the effects of illicit agro-chemical use in drug production." He added that others complaining of eye irritation "were working on their (drug) plots when they were sprayed." Beers agreed. "The individuals themselves are dealing with a set of chemicals that are quite harsh in terms of toxicity, and that has to be taken into account in terms of what's going on there." Merchan added that the spray technology was so precise "we have minimized errors to a maximum." Targets are carefully selected, he said, using the latest satellite imagery, and pilots are then given precise coordinates of where the illegal crops are. He said rules for spraying were being strictly enforced, including a 2,200-yard "no-spray zone" around towns and villages. "We don't spray small farmers. We know exactly where the industrial plantations are," Merchan said. Merchan confirmed spray planes were operating in the Cauca area on July 21, targeting poppy fields. As far as he knew no legal crops were hit, casting doubt on the veracity of Rengifo's story. After seeing what happened to his farm, Rengifo said it was clear the system doesn't work. "If that's what the satellites are telling them," he said, "then they have some adjustments to make." A stronger weedkillerCritics offer their own explanation for the health problems: an intensified aerial spraying program. Since the launch last year of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-backed offensive on drug crops, police have destroyed 124,000 acres of coca and 23,000 acres of poppy. Activists also point to changes in the chemical mix used in the eradication program. The main ingredient in the cocktail is glyphosate, a common backyard herbicide invented by the U.S. biotech company Monsanto. The company sells it commercially in the United States under the brand name Roundup. Monsanto will not discuss its sales of Roundup to Colombia. Although it won't say why, U.S. officials confirmed senior executives at the company have received death threats from Colombian drug-trafficking interests. But Monsanto defends its product. Roundup is the best-selling agricultural chemical ever produced, with $2.8-billion in sales last year. "Roundup has a long history of safe use when used according to directions," company spokeswoman Janice Armstrong said. U.S. and Colombian officials say glyphosate is one of the world's safest and most effective weedkillers. The Environmental Protection Administration approved it for general use in the United States in 1974. But the St. Petersburg Times has learned that since 1998, the Colombian spray program has been using a more modern advanced form of a glyphosate mix known as Roundup Ultra. According to Colombian sociologist Ricardo Vargas, who has studied the aerial eradication program since the early 1990s, the new formula is having a far more devastating effect on crops. "Before, the glyphosate didn't seem to be so effective," Vargas said. "Now, when I visit areas of fumigation, it's like someone poured gasoline and lit a match." U.S. officials deny there has been any significant change to the chemical solution. Former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette, however, confirmed there were problems with glyphosate in the mid 1990s. As a mist, it was subject to winds and to rain and wasn't getting enough leaf penetration. At the time, the embassy came under pressure from Washington to use other forms of herbicides that were more effective. To make matters worse, Monsanto was beginning to get cold feet after the death threats began. So, the State Department contacted other companies. Alternative chemicals were discussed. The embassy considered using chemicals that could be dropped as pellets, which would go to the root of the plant, as well as a highly toxic pesticide, tebuthiuron, and a controversial fungus, fusarium. But Colombian officials balked. The problem was soon resolved, however. When Monsanto's patent for glyphosate expired in the late 1990s, other companies were free to produce it. Feeling less threatened, the company began shipping to Colombia via an outlet in Hungary. By 1996, Monsanto had developed Roundup Ultra. Colombian authorities also began enhancing the herbicide with soapy additives, known as surfactants, that weigh down the glyphosate. This is done to prevent wind drift over non-targeted areas, as well as allowing for better penetration in the leaves of the coca and poppy plants. Experts warn that surfactants can be highly corrosive, depending on the concentration. In fact, Monsanto product labels specifically warn users of Roundup Ultra: "Do not add surfactants." "Some surfactants can cause foliar (leaf) injury to crops," Armstrong said. "So by restricting surfactants we were avoiding potential crop injury problems." Asked if there could be adverse health effects for humans if surfactants are added, she said, "It totally depends on what the surfactant is, what its chemical make-up is, and what strength it is being used at." According to U.S. and Colombian officials the amount of surfactant used is minuscule. Even so, concern over the manner in which Roundup Ultra is being used in Colombian counter-drug spraying recently prompted the makers of one of the surfactant ingredients to halt the use of its product. The British company, Imperial Chemical Industries, said the ingredient, Atplus 300F, had not been properly tested for use in aerial eradication of crops. "It was not designed for that purpose," said ICI spokesman, John Edgar, in a telephone interview from London. U.S. officials stress the surfactant being used in Colombia, Cosmo Flux, is made up of a dozen harmless ingredients. Scientists say it certainly looks that way. "From a chemists' point of view the ingredients don't look very reactive," said Susan Kegley, a staff scientist at the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco. "You need something to create a chemical reaction, and I don't see it," she said. But Kegley said evidence of health problems in Colombia indicated something was wrong. "It is puzzling to me. It seems they are adding something and not telling us, or the (skin) rash is being caused by acid burns from the surfactant," she said. Surfactants are soapy products that allow water and oil to mix, thereby allowing the glyphosate to penetrate the wax coating on plant leaves. Health officials in Cauca wonder if it could have the same effect on human skin. "If it is better absorbed in the plants, it may also more easily absorb in the skin," said Guzman, the local health official. Besides the health of his children, Rengifo is left wondering how he's going to feed his family. Although some of his neighbors tend small plots of coca or opium poppies on their farms to supplement their income, Rengifo said he never has. He was encouraged to plant organic coffee by a United Nations-sponsored alternative agriculture program. But now he said he may have no choice but to do as his neighbors. "Otherwise," he said, "how will we survive?" Note: Farmers say the U.S.-sponsored program to kill drug crops causes health problems. Officials say there is no evidence but promise studies.Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)Author: Sibylla Brodzinsky, David Adams & Paul de la GarzaPublished: August 20, 2001Copyright: 2001 St. Petersburg TimesContact: letters sptimes.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Colombia Drug War News of Colombian Crops Questioned Works -- But Too Well? Articles - Glyphosate
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Comment #9 posted by dddd on August 24, 2001 at 19:17:34 PT
Good question CongressmanSuet
" Where is Ralph Nader while all this is happening..."Where is anyone while all this is happening!?There seems to bea remarkable absence of any widespread public scrutiny here.I would like to see Connie Chung do some Condit type interviewswith Rand Beers,or those of his ilk.......ZERO accountability in government,is perhaps our worst problem nowdays...dddd
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Comment #8 posted by CongressmanSuet on August 24, 2001 at 18:21:18 PT
Contained damage...
    I love it where he says, well, its only a skin rash that lasts for like 5 days, we can live with that. Where is Ralph Nader while all this is happening...
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Comment #7 posted by Pontifex on August 24, 2001 at 12:04:33 PT:
Si-i-i-inging in the glyphosate
TDM, I share your feelings to the nth power. Glyphosate apologists, those who claim that it has only limited and transient health effects, should put their asses where their mouths are, and line up in a field for their chemical showers.In fact, Rand Beers suggested that he would do exactly that! Well, actually, HE wouldn't do it. He said that he would line his family up in the field instead. That's definitely the "quote of the summer", but I haven't been able to find it online. If anyone knows the URL, I would really appreciate it.Still, it sounds like Beers is changing his spin a little. Originally he wouldn't admit to any negative health effects.Dr. Russo, I think ICI, the British chemical company, is withdrawing their support for sound business reasons. The whole Columbian mess is a powderkeg, and ICI's board of directors probably doesn't feel that the risk to future profits -- and potential legal liability -- is worth the extra revenue today.Monsanto, on the other hand, has a long and storied partnership with the U.S government, one chapter of which Kaptinemo just pointed out. Also, they're making a lot more money out of this than ICI.In the run up to WWII, America would not even sell helium to Nazi Germany (leading to the hydrogen-fueled Hindenburg disaster), much like ICI is refusing to get involved in Columbia's explosive situation. But can you imagine I.G. Farben, makers of Zyklon-B poison gas, withdrawing their support for Hitler? I.G. Farben is still in business.If history is any guide, the Drug War will eventually collapse, but Monsanto will live on, unpunished and so much the wealthier.
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Comment #6 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on August 24, 2001 at 07:16:43 PT:
Consider This
The British company that made the surfactant had no knowledge that it was being used in Colombia, and did not wish to take part. Do they know something that the rest of us should? Beyond the toxicity question in humans, it is clear that spraying the Amazon is an ecological disaster. We have no business there. As Noam Chomsky suggested, what if China declared a War on Tobacco and came to Amerika to spray our fields. Crazy indeed.
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Comment #5 posted by kaptinemo on August 24, 2001 at 06:56:17 PT:
Hey, Doc
I just had a horrible thought; what are the chances that any of these surfacants have DMSO-analog properties? Carrying the toxic organo-phosphates through cellular membranes using DMSO's modalities? It might account for the rapid onset of symptoms when exposure has only been topical, rather than through direct inhalation.Back when I was with the Chemical Corps they used to scare the bejeezus out of us by telling us the Sovs used surfacants as thickeners to extend the lethal abilities of nerve agent weapons like VX. The surfacants were supposed to be analogous to the thickening agent for napalm, but with a twist; cellular conductivity.Given that Uncle had some nasty stuff of his own at places like Dugway and Tooele, it's entirely possible that this Cosmo-flux is a derivative of the same thickening/cellular transport chemical in the WetEye bombs stored there. And who was the biggest supplier of chemical precursors for the CBW programs in the US? Monsanto.This is REALLY sick.
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Comment #4 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on August 24, 2001 at 05:47:56 PT:
Round-Up contains glyphosate, and not 2,4-D. I am merely trying to demonstrate that manufacturer and complicit governments have claimed that many pesticides or herbicides are safe when they have in no manner been proven so. Why do you think that many of us garden organically?
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Comment #3 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on August 24, 2001 at 05:45:18 PT:
2,4-D and Canine Lymphoma
Past studies have demonstrated an association of 2,4-D with lymphoma (lymph node cancer) in dogs (do search at PubMed). More recent studies have tried to refute this, but could there possibly be conflicts of interest behind them?Dog is man's best friend for good reason. Much as we try to separate ourselves from the so-called beasts, it makes intuitive sense to me that if a substance possibly causes lymphoma in dogs when used in recommended amounts on your lawn to kill weeds, that surely it poses a risk to humans on the ground in Colombia, where they are using higher potencies with surfactant, thereby increasing systemic absorption. I would not use the Colombian and Amerikan assurances against harm as toilet paper.
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Comment #2 posted by kaptinemo on August 24, 2001 at 04:53:52 PT:
Say, WHAT????
"Instead, U.S. and Colombian officials say the skin rashes and other symptoms are more likely because of far stronger chemicals, including gasoline and sulfuric acid, used to grow coca and process coca leaves into the paste that yields cocaine.I was drinking some Pepsi when I read this and almost choked. Sure. Yeah, right. "Juan Valdez" the coffee-baron, doesn't have any clean water to bathe his kiddies with, so he sprays them with gasoline and sulfuric (battery) acid from his coca processing operation every morning before sending them off to school.I. F. Stone warned us: all governments are run by liars, and no one should believe anything they say. This bald-faced, brass attempt to snooker the American people is the most egregious example of this at work seen yet. They are so used to lying, they've forgotten Lincoln's Dictum about fooling all the people all of the time. so their lies will become ever more presposterous until no one will be able to maintain a straight face in their presence.
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Comment #1 posted by tdm on August 24, 2001 at 04:45:05 PT:
further testing needed
I have a great idea for testing the safety of both Roundup and the Roundup/surfactant mixture. Let's line up anyone (especially those who say the peasant farmers are lying) who thinks these chemicals are harmless to humans. Then we'll give them a nice healthy dose from a crop duster. If they're *so certain* it causes no human damage that they'll continue to support spraying it on the farmers and their families, I'm sure they'll have no objections to their own little glysophate shower. If they refuse this little experiment, then I'm afraid the cat's out of the bag and it's too late to close the barn door. Or something like that.tdm
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