March 3, 2003

Rocket Fuel in Drinking Water: Rocket Fuel in Drinking Water: Perchlorate Pollution Spreading Nationwide

Drinking water for more than 20 million Americans is contaminated with a toxic legacy of the Cold War: A chemical that interferes with normal thyroid function, may cause cancer and persists indefinitely in the environment, but is currently unregulated by state or federal authorities.

Perchlorate, the explosive main ingredient of rocket and missile fuel, contaminates drinking water supplies, groundwater or soil in hundreds of locations in at least 43 states, according to Environmental Working Group’s updated analysis of government data. EWG’s analysis of the latest scientific studies, which show harmful health effects from minute doses, argues that a national standard for perchlorate in drinking water should be no higher than one-tenth the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currrently recommends as safe.

Perchlorate is a powerful thyroid toxin that can affect the thyroid’s ability to take up the essential nutrient iodide and make thyroid hormones. Small disruptions in thyroid hormone levels during pregnancy can cause lowered IQ and larger disruptions cause mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech, or deficits in motor skills for infants and children.

In California, Arizona and Nevada, where testing has been most extensive, well over 20 million people drink water from public and private sources known to be polluted with perchlorate. This estimate includes millions of customers of 81 contaminated public water systems in California and aproximately 20 million customers in the three states who get at least part of their drinking water from the perchlorate-tainted Colorado River. (Because there is some overlap between systems that are supplied by groundwater sources and those supplied by the Colorado River, a total cannot be calculated by adding the two figures.)

Link: Perchlorate-contaminated drinking water sources in California.

Link: More than 20 million people in California, Arizona and Nevada get at least part of their drinking water from the perchlorate-contaminated Colorado River.

On March 3, 2003, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, introduced legislation that would mandate that the federal government set a drinking water standard for perchlorate by July 1, 2004. California health officials are working toward setting a state drinking water standard sometime in 2004, but the EPA is not expected to set enforceable national standards before 2008, if then.

California’s current provisional drinking water standard, which is only advisory, is 2 to 6 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA’s current draft standard is equivalent to 1 ppb. Boxer’s legislation does not specify what the standard should be but mandates that it be set at a level that will protect the most sensitive populations. EWG’s analysis of new studies, showing harmful effects from very low doses, argues that to protect children the standard should be no higher than one-tenth the EPA’s recommendation, or 0.1 ppb.

Link: New Studies Show Harm From Much Lower Doses of Perchlorate.

EWG’s analysis of the latest federal and state data shows:

Perchlorate is used in fireworks, safety flares, matches and car air bags, but 90 percent of it goes into solid rocket fuel for military missiles and the NASA space shuttle. American Pacific Corp. of Las Vegas and Kerr-McGee Corp. of Oklahoma City were the sole U.S. producers until 1998, when American Pacific bought out its rival.

National data is still spotty, but extensive drinking water testing is now taking place under the federal Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, which requires testing by all large water systems and some smaller ones. As the data comes in, perchlorate contamination is being found in many places where there was no record of the chemical’s use.

Once thought to affect only Air Force facilities and contractors, more recently perchlorate contamination has been found in tests at many Army and Navy sites as well, especially where munitions have been disposed of by open burning or detonation. Among known contaminated sites is the McGregor Naval Weapons Plant in central Texas, just a few miles from President Bush’s ranch. Underground plumes of perchlorate have also been found spreading from non-military industrial sites, such as an abandoned flare factory in San Martin, Calif., formerly operated by Olin Corp. of Norwalk, Conn., that has polluted more than 100 private wells.

Although the majority of known and suspected perchlorate-contaminated sites are operated by the military or contractors such as St. Louis-based Lockheed Martin, the Department of Defense and the aerospace and defense industry are stubbornly resisting the efforts of regulators to set adequate safety standards or clean up contaminated sites.

Despite volumes of new evidence showing that very low doses are harmful to fetuses, infants and children, the Pentagon and its contractors argue that the risks of perchlorate should be assessed on the basis of a single study, funded by the defense industry, on short-term exposure of a handful of adult men and non-pregnant women. Last year, Kerr-McGee and Lockheed Martin successfully sued California health authorities to reconsider the state’s provisional drinking water standard, which likely will force the state to miss a January 2004 deadline, mandated by state law, for setting an enforceable standard.

Both the Defense Department and Lockheed Martin, which is being sued by 800 residents of San Bernardino, Calif., for cancer and other illnesses they believe were caused by decades of drinking perchlorate-contaminated water, maintain that perchlorate is safe at levels 200 times higher than the EPA’s current recommendation. In fact, there is strong evidence that the EPA’s recommended level of 1 ppb is far too high.

Neither the EPA nor the state of California have taken into account the numerous common anti-thyroid chemicals which may worsen the effects of perchlorate, notably the drinking water contaminant nitrate. Neither the EPA nor California have taken note of epidemiological studies that found effects on infant thyroid hormone levels at 1 to 6 ppb.

And neither the EPA nor California have adequately considered the extra perchlorate that may be consumed by eating lettuce or other produce grown with contaminated water. Documents obtained and published by EWG in December 2002 showed that a 1997 study in San Bernardino, Calif., of leafy vegetables growing in perchlorate-contaminated water found that the crops took up and stored perchlorate and concentrated it by an average factor of 65. This high rate of bioaccumulation means that a pregnant woman who ate a two-ounce serving of the vegetables would get a dose of perchlorate more than 100 times higher than what the EPA recommends as safe in a liter of drinking water.

Link: High Levels of Toxic Rocket Fuel Found in Lettuce.