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Rocket Science

Perchlorate and the toxic legacy of the cold war

Sunday, July 1, 2001

Rocket Science

Perchlorate and the toxic legacy of the cold war

View and Download the report here: Rocket Science

Sources of drinking water for almost 7 million Californians and unknown millions of other Americans are contaminated with a toxic legacy of the Cold War: A chemical that interferes with normal thyroid function, may cause thyroid cancer and persists indefinitely in the environment, but is unregulated by the state or federal government.

Perchlorate, the main ingredient of missile and rocket fuel, has been detected in 58 California public water systems so far, but fewer than 15 percent of the state’s drinking water sources have been sampled. Perchlorate has also been found in Lake Mead, Nev., and the Colorado River, which supply drinking water to more than half of Southern California as well as being a major source of water for Arizona and Nevada. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found perchlorate-tainted water in 18 states and believes it exists wherever rocket fuel or rockets were made or tested – 39 states in all.

Too much perchlorate can impair proper functioning of the thyroid gland, which controls growth, development and metabolism. Developing fetuses, infants and children with thyroid impairment may suffer mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech, or deficits in motor skills. In fact, improper regulation of thyroid function is the leading known cause of neurological impairment world-wide. At higher levels of exposure, perchlorate may also cause thyroid cancer and harm the immune system.

Perchlorate contamination of water and its effect on the thyroid have been known for decades, but neither California nor the federal government has established any enforceable health standard for perchlorate in drinking water. This year the EPA was scheduled to begin nationwide water sampling and issue its fourth provisional standard, but it will be years before there is an official state or federal drinking water standard.

These standards, however, will not be adequate to protect the public, particularly children. EWG calculates that the EPA’s proposed standards would leave formula-fed infants exposed to between 7.5 and 2,000 times the safe level of perchlorate in drinking water.

Medical researchers are finding that even very low levels of perchlorate may affect the thyroid. But concerted pressure to set a looser standard is coming from a powerful alliance of chemical companies, aerospace contractors and the U.S. Air Force. In a now-infamous experiment that has prompted a federal ethics investigation, defense contractors and the Air Force have sponsored tests in which human subjects were paid to swallow daily doses of perchlorate far exceeding the amount California health officials say is safe.

If a less protective standard is set, perchlorate polluters such as Lockheed Martin and Aerojet will save millions of dollars in cleanup costs. But no matter how strict the standards are, contractors have cut deals that will stick U.S. taxpayers with almost 90 percent of the cleanup bill. With cleanup of some sites estimated to take more than 200 years, the cost to taxpayers could reach billions of dollars.

EWG urges California and the EPA to set safety standards for perchlorate in drinking water that are fully protective of public health. The standard should be no higher than 4.3 parts per billion. That level is about 7.5 times more stringent than the EPA’s current provisional standard, and about four times more stringent than California’s current action level, which is advisory only.

All human testing of perchlorate should be stopped. The U.S. military should be prohibited from lobbying to weaken environmental laws or regulations, and the corporations responsible for perchlorate contamination should pay for their fair share of cleanup.

View and Download the report here: Rocket Science

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