Some folks refer to their morning coffee as “Rocket Fuel.” If they are making their coffee with tap water, they may be speaking literally, not figuratively. They just don’t know it.
The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to rule that it will not set a drinking-water safety standard for perchlorate. This component of rocket fuel has been linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women, newborns and young children across the nation.
The story broke last week in a number of major newspapers; but was pushed to the back pages by the looming “debt-bomb” about to dropped on the taxpayers in the name of friendly fire from our elected representatives. No one in good conscious could refer to anyone in Washington, of any political stripe, as “leaders”, but that is another story for another day.
The EPA’s “preliminary regulatory determination” estimates that up to 16.6 million Americans are exposed to perchlorate at a level many scientists consider unsafe. Independent researchers, using federal and state data, have put the number at 20 million to 40 million.
Most perchlorate contamination in U.S. drinking water is the result of improper disposal by rocket test sites, military bases and chemical plants. A nationwide cleanup could cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, and several defense contractors have threatened to sue the Defense Department to help pay for it if one is required. The Government Accountability Office reported this spring that the Pentagon had pressured the EPA for several years not to regulate perchlorate.
“They have distorted the science to such an extent that they can justify not regulating” the chemical, said Robert Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts professor who specializes in thyroid hormone and brain development and has a copy of the EPA proposal. “Infants and children will continue to be damaged, and that damage is significant.”
Zoeller said scientific studies have shown that a small reduction in thyroid function in infants can translate into a loss of IQ and an increase in behavioral and perception problems. “It’s absolutely irreversible,” he said. “Even small changes in thyroid functions early on have impacts on functioning through high school and even into people’s 20s.”
According to a Washington Post article, OMB officials deleted any references to those studies in the EPA’s proposal.
The current EPA document states that establishing a drinking-water standard for perchlorate “would not present a ‘meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems,’ ” but it also reveals that many Americans will be exposed to the compound at levels higher than recommended if nothing is done to remove it. Perchlorate impedes the functioning of the thyroid gland, which produces hormones that foster mental and physical development and control metabolism. The notice indicates that the agency plans to finalize its decision by December 1st, 2008.
In response to the “dust-up” over the preliminary report, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, Benjamin H. Grumbles, stated; “Science, not the politics of fear in an election year, will drive our final decision.”
“Until then, final numbers and strategies are mere speculation,” Grumbles added. “We know perchlorate in drinking water presents some degree of risk and we’re committed to working with states and scientists to ensure public health is protected and meaningful opportunities for reducing risk are fully considered.”
In January 2002, the EPA issued a draft risk assessment finding that 1 part per billion should be considered safe; in March 2006, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection set a maximum contaminant level of 2 ppb; last year, California adopted a standard of 6 ppb.
A National Academy of Sciences panel prepared a risk analysis in 2005 that, according to the EPA’s traditional models, would produce a protective standard of 1 to 6 ppb. The academy’s study came under attack because two of the committee’s members had financial ties to defense contractors that face legal liability because of perchlorate disposal.
The EPA’s proposed ruling assumes that perchlorate contamination of 15 ppb is safe. But its regulatory document states that “between 16,000 and 28,000 pregnant women” and 900,000 to 2 million Americans could be exposed to higher levels.
The EPA document also finds that bottle-fed infants would be exposed to more than five times the level the National Academy of Sciences deemed safe — 700 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day — if parents mix formula with drinking water containing perchlorate levels of 15 ppb.
OMB officials said during the drafting process that there was “no need” for detailed data to flesh out a table suggesting that infants would be exposed to perchlorate levels above the academy’s recommendation.
To determine safe levels of exposure, the OBM opted not to use the academy’s “reference dose,” a formula that includes a tenfold safety factor to protect children and vulnerable populations, and instead used a computer model developed by the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology. EPA officials initially inserted language in the document calling this a “novel approach,” but the OMB deleted that language.
Federal officials have yet to determine the extent of perchlorate contamination nationwide, but it is known to be widespread. The GAO, which produced a 2005 report calling for a better federal tracking system for perchlorate, found that limited EPA data show the chemical compound has polluted the soil, groundwater and drinking water in 35 states and the District and has contaminated 153 public water systems in 26 states.
Stay tuned, and don’t drink the water, or swallow the Kool-Aid.