Environmental Research Foundation
(Moderator Note: ERF is an advocacy organization, routinely alarmed
about potential new claims of environmental health dangers. Their
well-written editorials are presented to the OEM-L forum in an effort to
provoke intellectual discussion, not as an endorsed point of view. For
contrast, see the newsletters posted from ACSH. -G)
We have changed the name of the Rachel newsletter once again
because it will now be published more often than biweekly, yet
less often than weekly. --Peter Montague
. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #713 .
. ---December 7, 2000--- .
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. ECHOES OF VIETNAM .
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ECHOES OF VIETNAM
by Rachel Massey*
In July, President Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion aid package to
step up the "war on drugs" in Colombia and neighboring countries in
South America. Of this sum, $860 million is designated for Colombia
itself, mainly as aid to the military. For three decades Colombia has
been torn by civil war, and the Colombian military has a well-documented
record of human rights abuses including disappearances, arbitrary
detentions, kidnappings, and torture of civilians.[2, pg. 20] The U.S.
Congress made its "drug war" military aid dependent upon the Colombian
government improving its human rights profile, but in August President
Clinton waived this requirement so that funds could begin to flow south.
This month Mr. Clinton may waive the human rights requirements once
again so a second installment of aid can be released.
For a number of years the U.S. has sponsored herbicide spraying in
Colombia, intending to curb illegal drugs at their source. Starting in
January 2001 under U.S. oversight, the Colombian government will
escalate its "crop eradication" activities, in which aircraft spray
herbicides containing glyphosate to kill opium poppy and coca plants.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the well-known herbicide called
Roundup. Opium poppy and coca are the raw materials for making heroin
Representatives of Colombian indigenous communities recently traveled to
Washington, D.C. to explain how they have been affected by spraying that
has already occurred. Glyphosate, they said, kills more than drug crops
-- it also kills food crops that many rural Colombians depend on for
survival. In some places, the spraying has killed fish and livestock and
has contaminated water supplies. One photograph from a sprayed area
shows a group of banana trees killed by herbicides; nearby a plot of
coca plants remains untouched. Sometimes the spray also lands on
schoolyards or people's homes. Many Colombians say they have become ill
as a result.
According to the NEW YORK TIMES, in one case several spray victims
traveled 55 miles by bus to visit a hospital. The doctor who treated
them said their symptoms included dizziness, nausea, muscle and joint
pain, and skin rashes. "We do not have the scientific means here to
prove they suffered pesticide poisoning, but the symptoms they displayed
were certainly consistent with that condition," he said. A nurse's aide
in the local clinic said she had been instructed "not to talk to anyone
about what happened here."
The U.S. State Department denies that there are human health effects
from spraying glyphosate on the Colombian countryside. A U.S. embassy
official in Colombia told the NEW YORK TIMES that glyphosate is "less
toxic than table salt or aspirin" and said the spray victims' accounts
of adverse effects were "scientifically impossible." A
question-and-answer fact sheet published by the State Department says
that glyphosate does not "harm cattle, chickens, or other farm animals,"
is not "harmful to human beings," and will not contaminate water. The
fact sheet asks the question, "If glyphosate is so benign, why are there
complaints of damage from its use in Colombia?" and answers: "These
reports have been largely based on unverified accounts provided by
farmers whose illicit crops have been sprayed. Since their illegal
livelihoods have been affected by the spraying, these persons do not
offer objective information about the program.... "
But medical reports link exposure to glyphosate herbicides with
short-term symptoms including blurred vision, skin problems, heart
palpitations, and nausea. Studies have also found associations with
increased risk of miscarriages, premature birth, and non-Hodgkins
lymphoma. Formulations in which glyphosate is combined with other
ingredients can be more acutely toxic than glyphosate alone.[6, pgs.
5-8] Monsanto, a major manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, was
challenged by the Attorney General of New York State for making safety
claims similar to those now being repeated by the U.S. State Department.
In an out-of-court settlement in 1996, Monsanto agreed to stop
advertising the product as "safe, non-toxic, harmless or free from
Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a vocal critic of the "drug war"
military aid, visited Colombia last week. During his visit he was
treated to a demonstration of aerial crop eradication, in the course of
which the Colombian National Police managed to spray Senator Wellstone
himself with herbicides. According to the Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, this
accident occurred shortly after the U.S. Embassy in Colombia circulated
materials explaining that the spray was guided by "precise geographical
coordinates" calculated by computer. Colombian police said the accident
had occurred because the wind blew the herbicide off course.
Both common sense and scientific studies tell us that wind can be
expected to blow aerially sprayed chemicals off course. For example, a
1992 study in Canada calculated that a buffer zone of 75 to 1200 meters
(243 to 3900 feet) could be needed to protect non-target vegetation from
damage during aerial spraying of glyphosate. And a 1985 article on
glyphosate says, "damage due to drift is likely to be more common and
more severe with glyphosate than with other herbicides."
Proponents of the "war on drugs" would like us to believe that the more
acres of South American countryside we spray with herbicides, the fewer
North American children will fall prey to drug pushers. But studies show
that herbicide spray campaigns are ineffective at stemming the flow of
drugs. So long as there is a demand for drugs, someone somewhere will
supply them. Therefore crop eradication programs simply waste tax
dollars. Furthermore, a 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting
Office (GAO), a federal agency, concluded that crop eradication efforts
to date have failed.[2, pg. 16] According to the GAO, the U.S. State
Department escalated its support for aerial spray campaigns in 1996, and
during the 1997-98 period, over 100,000 hectares (254,000 acres) of the
Colombian countryside were sprayed. But during this same period, net
coca cultivation in Colombia increased 50 percent.[2, pgs. 16-18]
On the other hand, tackling the drug problem within the U.S. by reducing
drug use can succeed. A study by the RAND corporation found that drug
treatment programs for cocaine users in the U.S. are 23 times as cost
effective as efforts to eradicate drugs at their source. And yet,
according to a 1999 U.S. government report, the majority of Americans
needing drug treatment went untreated between 1991 and 1996.
If dousing the Colombian countryside with herbicides is not an effective
way to diminish the drug problem in the U.S., it is worth asking what
drives our government's enthusiasm for this costly and destructive
approach. One explanation is that the "war on drugs" is a pretext for
policies that have little to do with drugs. Several U.S. industries
stand to gain from U.S. intervention in Colombia's civil war. The
Occidental Petroleum Corporation, for example, lobbied hard for the
"drug war" military aid; and U.S. companies that manufacture the
military helicopters used in Colombia were major supporters of the aid
Waging an ineffective "war on drugs" abroad also helps to divert
attention away from the political role of drug policy within the U.S. A
recent report by Human Rights Watch, an organization that monitors and
documents human rights abuses throughout the world, says that drug
control policies within the U.S. have been the primary driver of this
country's incarceration crisis, in which the prison population has
quadrupled since 1980. The U.S. now has more than 2 million citizens
behind bars. Rates of conviction and imprisonment are much higher among
nonviolent drug offenders who are black than among their white
counterparts. Thirteen percent of black men in the U.S. -- more than
one in ten -- are not allowed to vote because they are in jail or were
previously convicted of a felony.
Without the rhetoric of "fighting drugs," U.S. officials would have to
admit to the American public that we are intervening in another
country's civil war -- bringing back memories of Vietnam and other
disastrous failures of U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, the analogy
to Vietnam is appropriate as U.S. military involvement in Colombia
deepens. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. defoliated and contaminated
Vietnam's forests with Agent Orange, a herbicide composed of the
chemicals 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T and routinely contaminated with the
carcinogen dioxin. American veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange
suffer elevated rates of diabetes and certain cancers, and veterans'
children have elevated rates of major birth defects (see REHW #212 and
#250). Under the banner of the "war on drugs," in Colombia once again we
are waging a toxic war against another country's unique ecosystems and
the health of innocent civilians.
* Rachel Massey is a consultant to Environmental Research Foundation.
 See http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/aid.
 U.S. General Accounting Office Report to Congressional Requesters,
"Drug Control: Narcotics Threat from Colombia Continues to Grow.
GAO/NSIAD-99-136 June 1999. Go to http://www.gao.gov and search for the
report by number.
 See http://www.usfumigation.org.
 Larry Rohter, "To Colombians, Drug War is Toxic Enemy," NEW YORK
TIMES May 1, 2000, pgs. A1, A10
 U.S. State Department, "The Aerial Eradication of Illicit Crops:
Answer to Frequently Asked Questions," Fact sheet released by the Bureau
of Western Hemisphere Affairs, November 6, 2000, available at
 For a thorough review of glyphosate's adverse effects, see Caroline
Cox, "Glyphosate (Roundup)" Herbicide fact sheet, JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE
REFORM Vol 18, No. 3 (Fall 1998), updated October 2000, available at
http://www.pesticide.org or from Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to
Pesticides, Eugene, Or.; Tel. 541-344-5044.
 Rob Hotakainen, "Colombian Police Spray Herbicide on Coca,
Wellstone," Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE December 1, 2000.
 D. Atkinson, "Glyphosate damage symptoms and the effects of drift,"
in E. Grossbard and D. Atkinson, editors,THE HERBICIDE GLYPHOSATE
(London: Butterworth Heinemann, 1985), pgs. 455-458. ISBN 0408111534.
 Nicholas J. Payne, "Off-Target Glyphosate from Aerial Silvicultural
Applications, and Buffer Zones Required around Sensitive Areas,"
PESTICIDE SCIENCE Vol. 34, 1992, pgs. 1-8.
 C. Peter Rydell and Susan S. Everingham, CONTROLLING COCAINE:
SUPPLY VERSUS DEMAND (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1994), ISBN
0-8330-1552-4, pg. xiii.
 Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1999 NATIONAL ANTI-DRUG
STRATEGY, Table 27, p. 130. Available at http://-
 Sam Loewenberg, "Well-financed U.S lobby seeks relief from Drug
Wars," LEGAL TIMES February 21, 2000, available at
 Human Rights Watch, PUNISHMENT AND PREJUDICE: RACIAL DISPARITIES IN
THE WAR ON DRUGS, March 1999, summary available at
http://www.hrw.org/hrw/reports/2000/usa/Rcedrg00-03.htm or at
 Mary Gabriel, "13 Percent of Black Men in America Have No Vote,"
REUTERS November 3, 2000.
Gary N. Greenberg, MD MPH Sysop / Moderator Occ-Env-Med-L MailList
gary.greenberg at duke.edu Duke Occupat, Environ, Int & Fam Medicine
OEM-L Maillist Website: http://occhealthnews.com