Will EPA regulate rocket fuel in drinking water?

By Alex Formuzis, EWG Director of CommunicationsMaking good on Administrator Lisa Jackson's confirmation promise, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving ahead with its deliberations on whether to impose the first national limits on drinking water contamination by perchlorate, the main component of solid rocket fuel. The EPA has reported finding perchlorate, a potent thyroid toxin, in public water systems in 28 states and territories. Researchers have also detected perchlorate in infant formula, breast milk and produce. EWG's own tests have identified significant perchlorate contamination in nearly a fifth of lettuce samples grown in Southern California and Arizona. Surprise! Industry opposes stronger regs The defense and aerospace communities have lobbied against legal limits on perchlorate contamination in drinking water, fearing that regulation would require them to mount clean-ups at Cold-War era rocket and missile testing sites and storage facilities where tons of the chemical were spilled.

"We hope the Obama EPA will reverse the harmful perchlorate decisions made under the previous administration," said Anila Jacob, M.D., M.P.H., Senior Scientist with EWG. "Scientists have established that even very small amounts of perchlorate can disrupt thyroid hormone production that is critical to brain and neurological development. This makes the chemical particularly dangerous to the fetus, infants, and children."

Perchlorate: Not so healthy In comments submitted to EPA on September 18, EWG argued that perchlorate "contaminates drinking water supplies nationwide at levels of concern for human health, providing the agency with a meaningful opportunity for human health risk reduction through a national primary drinking water rule." Jacob is co-author of several papers on the public health threat of perchlorate, among them a January 2008 analysis that found that the average 2-year-old would be exposed to more than half the EPA's safe dose of perchlorate from food. Drinking perchlorate-tainted tap water could push the toddler's daily consumption to unsafe levels, the EWG study concluded. Last October, at the urging of the Pentagon and defense and aerospace industry officials, the Bush administration decided against regulating perchlorate water contamination. The move caused an outcry from scientists, medical experts and children's health advocates. EPA's Lisa Jackson promised to act During her confirmation hearing last January, Jackson pledged that she would act "immediately" to protect pregnant women and children from perchlorate pollution. On Aug. 5, Jackson announced that EPA would reevaluate the safety of perchlorate in drinking water, with "special emphasis" on the chemical's impact on children's development. She said the review would consider regulating perchlorate in light of "the fact that infants and children consume more water per body weight than do adults." Previous EPA assessments appeared to make little or no distinction between water consumption patterns of adults and children. Time will tell if EPA's actions lead to stronger regulation Now that the public comment period is completed, EPA officials say their next move is to determine whether to regulate perchlorate pollution under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. If they choose to regulate, the EPA must draft a proposal for a national drinking water standard, setting the maximum legal limit on the amount of perchlorate in drinking water produced by municipal water utilities. If such a rule were finalized, water utilities across the U.S. would be required to test their output and meet the new legal limit for perchlorate contamination. The tortuous rule-making process could take many months. Still, the Obama administration's commitment to tackling the perchlorate issue is a marked improvement from the previous administration's refusal to consider the subtle public heath implications of the widespread problem.

"The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 100 percent of the U.S. population has been exposed to perchlorate," Jacob said. "Strict mandatory regulations on perchlorate in drinking water would go a long way toward lowering the number of people, particularly children, exposed to dangerous concentrations of this chemical."

Interested in the history of perchlorate health effects research? Great news, we created a timeline.

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