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Suspect Salads: Toxic Rocket Fuel Found in Samples of Winter Lettuce

For Immediate Release: 
Monday, April 28, 2003

OAKLAND, CA — Lettuce grown in the fall and winter months in Southern California or Arizona may contain higher levels of toxic rocket fuel than is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to independent laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG’s report, “Suspect Salads,” is available at www.ewg.org.

In the first-ever tests of perchlorate in supermarket produce, 18 percent of lettuce samples contained detectable levels of perchlorate, and an average serving of contaminated lettuce contained 4 times more perchlorate than the EPA says is safe in drinking water. EWG estimates that by eating lettuce, 1.6 million American women of childbearing age are exposed daily during the winter months to more perchlorate than the EPA’s recommended safe dose. EWG’s tests on retail produce confirm previous research on greenhouse-grown lettuce seedlings and field-grown lettuce, kale and spinach.

"Our findings and the earlier tests show that toxic rocket fuel is not just a regional problem in areas where drinking water is contaminated, but a national concern for everyone who eats winter lettuce," said Renee Sharp, a senior analyst in EWG's California office and co-author of the report. "To protect people from perchlorate not just in water but food, safety standards will have to be much tougher than what's currently proposed."

Perchlorate, the explosive component of rocket and missile fuel, can affect the thyroid gland’s ability to make essential hormones. For fetuses, infants and children, disruptions in thyroid hormone levels can cause lowered IQ, mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech, and motor skill deficits. Currently there are no enforceable perchlorate safety standards, but the EPA’s currently recommended safe dose is equal to 1 part per billion (ppb) in drinking water. EWG’s review of the latest studies argues that a national safety standard should be no higher 0.1 ppb — one-tenth the EPA’s currently recommended level.

Perchlorate contaminates more than 500 drinking water sources in 20 states, serving well over 20 million people. Among major contaminated sources is the Colorado River, which not only provides drinking water for Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities, but also irrigates 70 percent of the nation’s lettuce grown from October to March. Of the 15 leading lettuce-growing counties in the U.S., 10 have known or suspected sources of perchlorate pollution.

EWG urges the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture to move quickly to conduct a definitive study of perchlorate contamination in the American food supply, and make all results public. All future drinking water standards must adequately reflect the potential for exposure through food. Farmers and landowners must be fully compensated for lost profits and property values.

The report is released as lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento are urging tougher perchlorate regulations — and the Bush Administration is trying to get the Pentagon off the hook for cleanup of polluted military sites.

Most of the perchlorate contamination nationwide comes from military bases or plants operated by federal defense contractors, but the White House is asking Congress to exempt defense facilities from a number of environmental regulations, including cleanup of toxic waste. Hearings on the Administration’s proposal continue in both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees the week of May 5.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and State Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario, have each introduced bills that would require all past and present perchlorate polluters to disclose their use, method of disposal and history of leaks. Soto’s bill faces a key hearing Monday, April 28, in the state Senate Environmental Quality Committee.