Good News! EPA Will Finally Regulate Rocket Fuel in Drinking Water

Today is a good day for public health! EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced her intention to regulate perchlorate, a toxic chemical that contaminates water and food across the country. The EPA has only been trying to do so since 2002 -- the whole Bush Administration! Up to now the Bush White House had been interfering with EPA's attempts to regulate it, as a favor to the Defense Department and its contractors so they wouldn't have to face strict clean up requirements or potential liabilities. This has been a long time coming.

EPA's decision to regulate perchlorate in drinking water will not only protect our health but reverses bad public policy that has put us at risk for years. It is a hazardous chemical component of explosives that was used in rocket fuel, and is still used in fireworks and air bags.

According to a 2010 report by an independent investigative arm of Congress, GAO, Perchlorate has been found in water and other media at varying levels in 45 states, as well as in the food supply, and comes from a variety of sources. EPA found it in the public drinking water supplies that serve over 17 million people. And FDA found it in well over half of food samples they analyzed, including baby foods and infant formula.  It’s also in human breast milk. It probably gets into the foods from drinking and irrigation water. And, it gets into ground water by leaching out of old military and other dump sites that were not properly lined back in the day.

Perchlorate is such a big health concern because it blocks normal thyroid hormone production. This leads to low thyroid hormone, which if it is too low, and occurs during early life development will lead to developmental delays and low IQ. We don't have enough data right now to know whether or not there may be a safe level of perchlorate that wouldn't be associated with harm, but a lot of science experts suspect that there isn't one. For example, UMass Amherst Professors Carol Bigelow and Tom Zoeller, highly-respected independent scientists, wrote in comments to EPA that small differences in available thyroid hormone (and the iodine associated with it) during the first few weeks of life can have significant lifetime consequences.

A new analysis by California state researchers reported that babies born in areas with perchlorate-contaminated tap water above five parts per billion (ppb), about five teaspoons of perchlorate in an Olympic-sized pool, had a 50 percent chance of having a measurable decline in thyroid function. Ouch! We don't know if this level of decline would necessarily lead to IQ deficits, but who would willingly take such a risk with their babies?!

After more than 17 years of accumulated science on perchlorate harms, two EPA toxicological reviews (1998, 2002), and a lengthy review by the National Academies (2004), it is past time for EPA to take effective regulatory action to protect people’s health by preventing exposure to perchlorate.

For more on the policy and legal side, see the blog of my legal-beagle work-buddy Mae Wu.

This post was first published on NRDC's Switchboard blog.