World Health Organization affiliated scientists have declared that the weed killer used to aerially eradicate coca crops in Colombia is probably carcinogenic, raising questions about whether the government can justify continuing with its controversial policy.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has published a report stating that glyphosate, the chemical sprayed onto Colombia's coca plantations by crop dusting planes, causes DNA and chromosomal damage in human and animal cells studied in laboratories and is likely carcinogenic.
The IARC's analysis of workers exposed to the chemical also suggested a correlation between exposure and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The agrochemical manufacturer Monsanto contested the findings, pointing to conclusions by other regulatory agencies including US Environmental Protection Agency rulings on the safe use of glyphosate, reported Al Jazeera America.
In 2013, Colombia sprayed glyphosate on 47,053 hectares of coca, according to the United Nations coca cultivation survey. While this has dropped from a 2006 high of 172,025 hectares, it still accounted for 68 percent of Colombia's total eradication efforts for the year.
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Colombia is the only coca producing country that allows aerial fumigations, and spraying illegal crops has been a highly controversial policy since it was first introduced in 1994.
Communities in affected areas complain that the fumigations kill off their legal food crops planted nearby, as well as destroying the livelihoods of coca farmers, who only see a tiny fraction of the profits from the cocaine trade.
For years, rural populations have also complained that the spraying has caused health issues such as skin and respiratory problems, birth defects and miscarriages. While this has proven difficult to verify, research has shown a correlation between spraying and rising incidences of skin disorders and miscarriages.
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Critics of the program, which span the spectrum from the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to the president of the Colombian government's special advisory commission on drug policy, have long called for a reevaluation of the policy, and the IARC report will make it increasingly difficult to ignore these calls.
In addition, the study raises the possibility that those exposed to the potentially carcinogenic substance could take legal action. Colombia has already settled out of court with its neighbor Ecuador, which took Colombia to the International Court of Justice at The Hague over alleged damage to Ecuador caused by spraying near the border. The Colombian authorities agreed to pay $15 million in damages and to place restrictions on aerial fumigation near the border.