Protecting kids from perchlorate isn’t rocket science

By Michael Collins

Ventura County Reporter – January 20, 2005

Dumb and DumberOn Jan. 10, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report on the hazards of perchlorate that has the defense and aerospace industry crowing and some environmentalists singing the blues.

The NAS report recommends national drinking water standards that would be radically more lax than those currently recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In doing so, it has re-ignited the debate over the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer that has permeated the water supply of 16 million Californians and has threatened to affect drinking water in another 35 states.

What hangs in the balance is the health of millions of kids and billions of dollars in cleanup costs that the polluters—the government being one of them—don’t want to spend.

Adding to the mix, a soon-to-be-released Texas Tech University study will show that perchlorate unrelated to drinking water has been found in breast milk in 11 states, with some readings as high as 90 parts per billion (ppb). This finding suggests that the toxin has permeated the food chain to an extent previously unknown. This alarming new information should grab the attention of the EPA when it makes its final determination for this toxic chemical.

Over 330 drinking water sources in California have registered concentrations of perchlorate at or above the state’s provisional action-reporting level of 6 ppb. No drinking water wells have tested positive in Ventura County, yet there have been 17 detections of the chemical in Simi Valley groundwater, with the highest hitting 19.6 ppb. Elsewhere in East County, groundwater adjacent to Ahmanson Ranch tested at 28 ppb, and the heavily polluted Rocketdyne field laboratory has registered a whopping 48,000 ppb in near-surface water.

Perchlorate interferes with how the thyroid functions and is especially dangerous to fetuses, babies and children. It causes iodine deficiency, which limits the thyroid gland’s ability to produce a hormone essential to neurological development.

“On average, children of iodine-deficient mothers have five to 13 fewer IQ points compared to children of mothers with iodine-sufficient diets,” states a report issued last week by the Environment California Research and Policy Center.

The NAS study recommends that the federal government allow 23 times more perchlorate in drinking water than the EPA currently does.

Naturally, the study has some environmental leaders infuriated. “Senator Boxer is not at all pleased with the results of this NAS study,” said David Sandretti, a spokesman for the Senator. “She feels that they did not use sound science…. Sen. Boxer will be reintroducing a ‘Right to Know’ bill for the community so they know what is in their drinking water.”

Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), also criticized the NAS study’s methodology, particularly the paucity of subjects on which it based its conclusions. “Using seven human subjects (in one test) is statistically unstable,” Solomon said, going on to criticize the study’s assumptions regarding thyroid alterations. “When you put all (these) things together, it undermines the results and their recommendations.”

The NRDC also questioned the NAS’s motives, and under the Freedom of Information Act obtained copies of communications between the Defense Department, the White House and a slew of perchlorate polluters, including Kerr-McGee Chemical and Lockheed Martin. This yielded thirty boxes of heavily redacted e-mails that described such matters as who should be on the NAS panel and what they should concentrate on.

Naturally, industry loved the NAS recommendation, even hinting that the outcry over perchlorate had “diverted resources” from other “pressing” environmental issues. “What’s required now is careful review of the report to fully understand it and determine how the information can benefit the standard-setting process . . . That’s the only way to ensure public health is protected and to ensure public resources aren’t unnecessarily diverted from pressing environmental and health needs,” the Council on Water Quality said in a statement lauding the report. Companies including Lockheed Martin and Kerr-McGee Chemical support the group.

But at the end of the day, the polluters may not be all that thrilled with the NAS results after all. “I think that they’re pretty worried,” said Renee Sharp, a senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, which praised the report. “Even if you take the study at face value, you still come up with a number that is in the lower parts per billion.”

And Sharp may be right. In the case of a contaminant like perchlorate, where infants are at greatest risk and health consequences can occur from short-term exposure, the EPA has typically used infant weight and ingestion figures when setting a drinking water standard. And according to the EPA, establishing a drinking water standard “typically involves the use of a relative source contribution factor to account for non-water sources of exposures.” The California EPA has determined that perchlorate exposure comes 60 percent from water and 40 percent from food. Figuring that into the weight-based equation, Sharp postulates that the final EPA nationwide standard could be as low as 2.5 ppb.

That’s considerably stricter than the current California public health goal of 6 ppb. And far stricter than the 200 ppb to 350 ppb levels industry has lobbied for in the past.