EPA To Deny Perchlorate Standard Despite Health Risks to Babies?

iceberg lettuceI read an article in the Washington Post on Monday that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to decide not to set a federal drinking water safety standard for perchlorate.  The document has not been finalized, but according to the draft obtained by the Washington Post, the new EPA proposal finds that a level of 15 parts per billion perchlorate in groundwater is safe, which is 15 times what the EPA suggested in 2002.

Why am I talking about perchlorate?  Perchlorate related to rocket fuel, right?  Well, perchlorate has been linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women, newborns and young children.  Exposure to perchlorate may affect fetal development, particularly in women with low iodine levels.  And perchlorate is found in our drinking water.

Perchlorate occurs naturally and is also manufactured.  In the United States, it is used as the primary ingredient in solid rocket propellant and is also used in airbags, fireworks and road flares.  Most of the perchlorate contamination in US drinking water comes from releases from rocket test sites, military bases and chemical plants.  Also, it may be present from the use of Chilean fertilizer to agricultural lands.

Perchlorate has made its way into our drinking water supplies.  Perchlorate has contaminated the drinking water systems in 26 states and is found in groundwater and drinking water in 35 states.  Perchlorate is reportedly present in municipal water supplies at concentrations between 4 and 20 ppb.  EPA’s 2002 draft risk assessment – which is now is rejecting – set the safe level of perchlorate contamination at 1 ppb.  California has set a drinking water standard of 6 ppb.  Massachusetts has set as standard of 2 ppb. 

We are also exposed to perchlorate in our food.  Perchlorate has been detected in fruits and vegetables, grains and milk.  It is present in crops that are irrigated with water containing perchlorate, and in dairy products from cows ingesting contaminated feed.  

Perchlorate reduces thyroid hormone by interfering with the thyroid’s uptake of iodide.  Perchlorate exposure may cause significantly greater adverse health effects in women with low iodine levels.  Women with low iodine levels who are exposed to perchlorate may not be able to provide adequate levels of thyroid hormones to their fetus.  Any maternal shortage of thyroid hormone can have long term consequences to the fetus.  The thyroid gland generates hormones that are used throughout our bodies, including prenatal development.  Studies have shown that even subtle fluctuations in maternal thyroid hormone levels during pregnancy can have long term effects on IQ.  Robert Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts professor, says that “even small changes in thyroid functions early on have impacts on functioning through high school and even into people’s 20s.”  His response to the EPA’s proposal?  “Infants and children will continue to be damaged, and that damage is significant.”

Senator Barber Boxer has taken the EPA to task for failing to a address this problem.  It does appear that the EPA has been swayed by the Defense Department, which could be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs for addressing perchlorate contamination sites.  And the Washington Post points to numerous edits by the Office of Management and Budget, incluidng deleting reference to the studies showing small reduction in thyroid function in infants translates to a loss of IQ.

According to the Washington Post, the EPA’s proposed rule states that “between 16,000 and 28,000 pregnant women” will be exposed to levels higher than 15 ppb – and well above those levels deemed protective by California and Massachusetts, and the EPA in 2002.  And bottle fed infants will be exposed to perchlorate levels 5 times what the National Acadmey of Sciences deems safe if water is used to mix formula containing perchlorate levels of 15 ppb.

Although it is nothing new, I find the accusations that science is for sale and mired in politics deeply disturbing.  And the willingness to ignore the potential risks to our most vulnerable populations troubling.

So what can you do?  Well, vote for change.  But, in the meantime, here are Smart Mama’s Simple Steps for reducing exposure to perchlorate:

  • Check your thyroid.  If you suspect your thyroid isn’t functioning properly, have it checked.  A simple blood test can tell you if your thyroid is working properly.

  • Make sure you are not iodine deficient.  Almost 4 out of every 10 women in the United States have an iodine deficiency.  Protect your thyroid by taking a vitamin with an appropriate amount of iodine.  But always talk to you doctor first – too much iodine can aggravate hypothyroidism and thyroid conditions. 

  • Know your water.  If you are on a municipal system, find out whether perchlorate is present.  The information should be available from your water provider.  If the level is elevated, you may want to consider a filter designed to remove perchlorate. 

  • Perchlorate and well water.  If you live near a hazardous waste site or other area where perchlorates have been found, and you use well water, you may want to consider an alternative drinking water source to reduce the risk to your family.

  • Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and grains.  Perchlorate has been detected in fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk.  Its presence in fruits, vegetables and grains in linked to irrigation with perchlorate-contaminated water or plants grown in soil containing perchlorate, either naturally occurring or as a result of exposure to perchlorate-containing water or fertilizer.  Milk is linked to the cow’s ingestion of perchlorate containing feed and water.  However, surveys of food products do not suggest a way to limit perchlorate intake from food products because of the wide variability in concentrations.  The best solution is to eat a wide variety so that contamination from any one particular food source is not dominant in the diet.

  • Follow workplace safety.  If you work in a factory that makes or uses perchlorates, make sure you follow all recommendations to reduce exposure.  You can carry perchlorate dust from work on your clothing, skin, or hair and transfer the perchlorate dust to your car, home, or other locations where family members might be exposed.  If you can, change your clothes before getting into your care or coming home.  Also, if you can, taking a shower will remove any perchlorate dust from your skin or hair.
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