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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Panel Says Perchlorate Safe at Levels Higher Than EPA Recommendations

Air Date: Week of January 14, 2005

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Part One: The National Academy of Sciences says perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient found in drinking water, is less hazardous than government regulators had earlier warned. But one environmental group says the defense industry pressured the Academy to water down its results. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.Part Two: Host Steve Curwood talks with the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Waldman about the science behind perchlorate contamination.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Perchlorate - an ingredient used to make rocket fuel - keeps showing up in drinking water, lettuce, milk, even breast milk. The chemical is known to inhibit hormones essential to brain development in infants. Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency said very low levels of perchlorate in water supplies could cause harm. The defense industry, the main user of perchlorate, disagreed. So, at the request of the White House, the National Academy of Sciences weighed in on the matter and has just issued its own report. But, as Living on Earth's Jeff Young explains, the controversy is still far from settled.

YOUNG: When some 11 million Americans get a glass of water they also get a little bit of rocket fuel in the form of a chemical called perchlorate. It's been found in water supplies in 35 states from Maryland streams to the California coast and the Los Angeles neighborhood Democratic Congresswoman Hilda Solis represents.

SOLIS: About 138 wells in L.A. County have been found to be contaminated and in my district alone the cost it would probably take to clean it up would roughly be in the area of $200 million. And we're talking about contamination that was largely done by Department of Defense contractors.

YOUNG: Solis introduced a bill this month that would give the Environmental Protection Agency two years to set a safety standard for perchlorate in drinking water - something the agency started to do years ago. A similar bill in the Senate would also require perchlorate cleanup.

But determining how much perchlorate presents a hazard, and how much needs to be cleaned up, has turned into a long fight between the defense industry and government regulators, with billions of dollars at stake. When EPA first proposed a drinking water standard of just one part perchlorate per every billion parts water, the defense industry fought back with a major public relations and lobbying campaign.

Attorney Erik Olson tracks the issue for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

OLSON: They are extremely worried about huge costs to them through litigation and through cleanup. And this is a very small investment compared to billions in cleanup costs. Throwing around a few million dollars or tens of millions is almost nothing to them.

YOUNG: The defense companies hired their own scientists and pressed for the National Academy of Sciences to referee the dispute, something EPA agreed to. EPA had based its findings on animal studies. But the Academy's 15-member panel focused on studies with human subjects to come up with a "reference dose," that is, the amount of perchlorate a person could safely consume. The Academy's reference dose was more than 20 times what EPA had proposed.

University of Colorado Pediatrics Professor Dr. Richard Johnston chaired the Academy's panel. Johnston says the recommended level is still well below anything that would harm a pregnant women and her fetus.

JOHNSTON: It was safe, it was conservative, it was straightforward, it was based on human beings, because we are concerned about the most sensitive populations.

YOUNG: Reaction to the report was mixed. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington non-profit tracking perchlorate contamination, welcomed the Academy's findings as something that will support a strong drinking water standard. But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Olson remains skeptical of the Academy's results and its process.

OLSON: Well, we think it's pretty clear that the efforts of the White House, and of the Pentagon and the big defense contractors were quite successful at twisting the arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

YOUNG: After one Academy panelist had to resign due to a conflict of interest, Olson asked the White House and Defense Department for documents about the Academy study. Much of what he got was blacked out. But subject lines of memos and emails show senior officials discussed who they would like on the panel and just what questions panelists should consider.

OLSON: So, we think there's a lot of smoke and there's clearly fire here.

YOUNG: A lot of smoke, perhaps, but no smoking gun. Olson lacks solid evidence for his claims. He says that's because the proof is hidden in the withheld records. The Academy and the White House say Olson is simply wrong.

HOPKINS: Well, it couldn't be further from the truth. This is an attempt to distort the science by attacking the process.

YOUNG: That's Bob Hopkins, a spokesperson for the White House office of Science and Technology. Hopkins says the official discussion about Academy panels is routine. The National Academy's Executive Officer William Colglazier agrees and defends the panel's work.

COLGLAZIER: The government had no influence on the conduct of our work, either on the people that were appointed to our committee or what the committee had to say in its final report.

YOUNG: The Academy's final report is not the final word on perchlorate. It does not set any legally enforceable standard for water. The Academy doesn't even recommend one. It's up to the EPA and state regulators to do that, and there is wide disagreement on just how the academy's safe dose number will translate into numbers for drinking water standards.

Some, but not all, environmentalists worry that the federal standard could go up to 20 parts per billion where the defense industry could escape responsibility for cleanup. A chart from the American Waterworks Association, the professional group for water utilities, shows a range of possible standards based on the Academy's dose, from about one part per billion up to 40 or more. But California health officials say they don't expect their public health goal of 6 parts per billion to change very much.

Meanwhile, industry representatives insist regulators should start from an assumption that much higher levels of perchlorate are safe. James Strock is with the perchlorate industry's PR group called Council on Water Quality. Strock points to a study the Academy reviewed—a study paid for, in part, by the perchlorate makers.

STROCK: What they said that's very clear on the basis of studies is that at levels up to over 200 ppb they found no health effect at all. That initial baseline of where they found no effect level at all will probably be the key element that regulatory agencies will then take into account and apply.

YOUNG: Just what regulators will do with perchlorate in water is still a little murky. What's clear is that the defense industry's fight is not over. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

CURWOOD: Joining me now is Peter Waldman. He's, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal who's been following the science and politics of perchlorate for the past several years. Hello!

WALDMAN: Hi.

CURWOOD: Now, we've heard where perchlorate comes from, but could you go a little deeper into this? What are the different sources of perchlorate that could get into drinking water?

WALDMAN: Well, by far the largest source in drinking water in the United States is a constituent of solid rocket fuel. Starting in the 1940s, the U.S. military deployed perchlorate as the main oxidizer in solid rocket fuel. Basically, it's extremely stable and can be carried around ships and loaded in and out of trucks and so forth, it won't blow up. Yet, it enhances the burn of the solid rocket fuel many fold.

And what happened was over the years of the Cold War - the decades, really - the military and its contractors, the aerospace industry, would have to clean out the missiles in various places. And in the process of doing so they would discharge the perchlorate onto the ground where it would seep into underground water. And this happened extremely widely, particularly in the west but also in places like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. And the result is, you know, fairly high levels of perchlorate in groundwater in pockets throughout the country.

CURWOOD: What exactly are the health effects of perchlorate? As I understand it, it was once used to treat medical conditions like hypothyroidism - it affects how the thyroid works. But what does this mean?

WALDMAN: Well, the thyroid depends on iodide to produce thyroid hormone. And perchlorate blocks the uptake of iodide into the thyroid gland and, therefore, inhibits the production of thyroid hormone. The debate is all about at what level is it safe for that blockage to occur. And the reason it's a very complicated debate after that simple model is because it turns out that pregnant moms and fetuses and little babies rely on thyroid hormone for the proper and, sort of, normal development of the brain. It's an extremely important hormonal signaler to the brain to form proper neurons and other brain structures. So, that's what's going on physically.

Going forward, the Environmental Protection Agency will have to derive a water standard if they believe this stuff is dangerous, which I'm sure they do. And a water standard will entail a number of different considerations that will certainly bring down the 20 parts per billion. The primary factor there will be what is called “relative source contribution,” and that is simply from what sources is the human population, are Americans, exposed to perchlorate. And it turns out Americans are exposed to perchlorate, not only from drinking water, but also from food, from fruits and vegetables that presumably were irrigated with water - probably from the Colorado River, but other sources as well - that contained perchlorate.

The Food and Drug Administration has found that there are moderate levels of perchlorate in many varieties of fruits and vegetables and in cow's milk. And now that Texas Tech University has found it in breast milk as well, human breast milk, in figuring out relative source contribution they'll have to factor that in. And it's almost certain that that will mean the eventual water standard will come down below 10 parts per billion.

CURWOOD: What accounts are there of people experiencing health effects from exposure to perchlorate?

WALDMAN: It's a very difficult thing to track, as you know how complicated epidemiological studies are to pick up things like, let's say, a decrement of one IQ point over the span of a population of people exposed to a given toxicant. We do know, from a very general level, that incidents of things like autism - which I am not saying is attributable to perchlorate, per se - but autism, other kinds of neural-behavioral disorders in young people, in children - hyperactivity and whatnot, attention deficit disorder - have risen for whatever reason. Possibly, it's a matter of diagnostics or other explanations, one doesn't know, but there are people very concerned that constituents like perchlorate are having an effect on the population.

CURWOOD: So, Peter, what happens next? The Environmental Protection Agency needs to make a rule here now, as I understand it. How do they go about it? And how long do you think it will take?

WALDMAN: The process of developing a federal water standard considers more than just health effects. They look at cost-benefit analysis. And the cost-benefit analysis for perchlorate cleanup will be very interesting. It's very expensive to clean up, there are no exact indicators of human disease. It will be hard for them to quantify if we clean it up to this level, we will save “x” billions of dollars in treating attention deficit disorder or some other malady.

So once it's done the cost-benefit analysis, then it goes to the White House with a standard and says, we think it should be “x” in drinking water, and the White House agrees or disagrees. At that point the political considerations clearly come into the fore, and then a water standard is ultimately issued. That can take probably from two to four years from this point.

CURWOOD: Peter Waldman is a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. Peter, thanks for taking this time with me today.

WALDMAN: Nice to talk to you.

CURWOOD: Coming up: Another first from California. The state considers making it illegal in certain cases to smoke tobacco in the privacy of your own home or car. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: "Naima" John Coltrane: The Best of John Coltrane (Atlantic) 1970]

 

Links

National Research Council "Health Implications of Perchlorate Ingestion" Report

National Resources Defense Council on Perchlorate

EPA on Perchlorate

Environmental Working Group

 

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