The stress crack between Environmental Protection Agency and its outside science advisers just got a lot deeper. In fact, these days it looks a lot like a thousand-foot crevasse.
The proximate cause: perchlorate, a rocket fuel component, potent thyroid toxin and ubiquitous water and soil pollutant, thanks largely to improper storage at military and space installations over the past four decades. Federal government and academic scientists have detected perchlorate in the urine of every American tested, public water supplies in at least 26 states, many agricultural products and even breast milk. Based on data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Working Group has estimated that as many as 44 million women who are pregnant, thyroid deficient or have low iodine levels are at heightened risk of exposure to the chemical.
Because perchlorate disrupts the production of thyroid hormones essential to normal brain development and is especially dangerous to fetuses and newborn babies, EPA's 30-member Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee has spent two and a half years pressing the agency to crack down on perchlorate pollution in drinking water.
EPA managers said nothing until Oct. 3, when they made a surprise announcement: the chemical posed no threat to most Americans, they declared, so EPA did not need to regulate it. The decision by EPA's front office, set to become final sometime next month, represented a major victory for the Pentagon and its clients -- defense and aerospace contractors responsible for perchlorate spills and reluctant to pay clean-up costs that could mount into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Faced with what looked like a done deal, the children's health committee took the extraordinary step of posting a letter of protest on the EPA website.