NYT: Trump EPA Won’t Limit Rocket Fuel Chemical in Drinking Water

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For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, May 14, 2020

WASHINGTON – In defiance of a federal court order, the Trump administration will not adopt any limits on perchlorate, a rocket fuel chemical associated with brain damage in infants and young children.

The New York Times reported today that Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler has decided not to set a legal limit on perchlorate in drinking water, despite the agency’s acknowledgement that the contaminant can harm children’s IQ. EPA staff confirmed the decision to the Times and said the agency will soon notify the White House that reducing levels of perchlorate in drinking water is “not in the public interest.”

“The science on perchlorate is very clear: It harms infants and the developing fetus,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president for science investigations at EWG. “Once again the Trump EPA decided to ignore the science and side with the chemical industry instead of protecting future generations from perchlorate.”

In 2001, a groundbreaking EWG investigation reported that perchlorate contaminated the drinking water of millions of people in California and nationwide. Perchlorate, a synthetic ingredient in rocket fuel, flares and fireworks that also occurs naturally, was used in vast quantities by large aerospace contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Aerojet, which for decades have lobbied to evade responsibility for cleaning up the contamination of public water systems near their factories. 

EWG’s national Tap Water Database includes records of perchlorate detected in 375 water utilities serving an estimated 12.1 million people. But those records do not include smaller water systems, so the number of Americans drinking water contaminated with perchlorate is likely much higher. 

Perchlorate is extremely mobile in soil and groundwater and does not readily degrade. It blocks the thyroid from taking in iodide, which is critical to the thyroid’s ability to regulate many body functions. Too little iodide can cause an array of health harms, including reduced thyroid hormones and an impact on metabolism, as well as physical and cognitive development. Children and the developing fetus are most at risk from perchlorate contamination.

The EPA decision defies a federal court order requiring the agency to set a national safe drinking water standard for perchlorate. In 2011, the Obama administration announced plans to establish a health-protective drinking water limit, but those efforts by the EPA stalled once the Trump administration came to power. 

In 2019, EWG urged the EPA to abandon its initial proposal for a legal limit of 56 parts per billion, or ppb, arguing that it ignores the risks to children’s health and the latest scientific research, and fails to follow the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act to use the best available peer-reviewed science for setting drinking water standards. 

EWG, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups endorse a limit of 2 ppb, which is the drinking water standard in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Texas, which have set their own legal limits for the chemical. 

Studies have shown perchlorate also contaminates irrigation water and fertilizer, food and food packaging

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.