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EPA Report Criticizes Herbicide Mix in Columbian Coca Erradication
(from September 6, 2002)

According to the St. Petersburg Times, the chemical mix supplied by the United States to wipe out drug crops in Colombia is potentially harmful to humans and the environment, according to a government report released September 5, 2002. After previously defending its use of glyphosate (RoundUp), the State Department now says it plans to switch to a less toxic formulation. The report by the Environmental Protection Agency was requested by Congress as part of an effort to determine the safety of the U.S.-financed crop eradication program. Critics of U.S. counter-drug policy in Colombia have raised concerns that the chemical mix being used was not properly tested. Reports from Colombia have also indicated that the spraying caused skin rashes and other ailments in populated areas, as well as contamination of water and the loss of legal crops. [for more information, see this week's photo story]

"The Congress wants to be satisfied that there are no unreasonable risks, and that if that is done, it is in accordance with the same regulatory channels required for use in the United States," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, author of the rules that led to the EPA report. The EPA said the State Department had failed to provide sufficient details to give the program a clean bill of health. The main ingredient of the spray is a powerful herbicide, glyphosate, better known in the United States as the backyard weedkiller RoundUp. For use in Colombia the glyphosate is mixed with a soapy additive, known as a surfactant, that helps the herbicide adhere to the leaves of plants.Last year the St. Petersburg Times reported that the Colombian glyphosate mix violated the manufacturer's own instructions not to add surfactants.

In its report, the EPA warned that it was concerned about one of the chemicals being used that carried the risk of causing "acute eye toxicity." EPA suggested that the State Department should "consider using an alternate glyphosate product" with lower toxicity. The State Department said Thursday it had already found a milder version of glyphosate. Officials began to buy the new mixture this month and expect to put it in use as soon as possible. Meanwhile, spraying will continue with the higher toxicity mix. U.S. officials hope to spray more than 300,000 acres of coca by the end of this year, almost 50 percent more than in 2001.

But critics of the program say it is irresponsible to continue spraying after the EPA's findings. Other are calling for congressional hearings. "The EPA made an honest effort to identify some of the potential risks," said Betsy Marsh of Amazon Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. "But there are a lot of unanswered questions where we need more information." Environmentalists and public health advocates are opposed to all aerial glyphosate applications.