Have you been told your tap water meets or exceeds safety standards? Don’t let that fool you into drinking straight from the sink without filtering or distilling. Those safety standards may be subject to radical change in the very near future. What counts as fine today may qualify as hazardous tomorrow.
Take, for instance, the issue of perchlorate, a type of salt which is a primary ingredient in rocket and missile fuel. It’s also a component in fireworks and road flares, in fertilizer and pool chemicals. The stuff has been manufactured since the early 1900s, but it took until the 1980’s for scientists to discover that it had seeped into groundwater. In fact, perchlorate has been found in the water supplies of 43 states. It’s also been found virtually throughout the globe, in soil and plants and our bodies and even on the planet Mars. While perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment, the manufactured variety has a different atomic composition. According to a congressional investigation, most perchlorate contamination comes from defense and aerospace activities.
As with so many manufactured chemicals, perchlorate isn’t exactly a health tonic. Studies have shown that it disrupts thyroid function and can cause developmental problems, including abnormal brain development, in fetuses and babies. There’s also reason to believe it may cause cancer.
Even so, the usual suspects in the regulatory agencies have been assuring us there’s no cause for alarm. Last September, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled not to regulate perchlorate in water. At the time, the FDA released a document stating that reducing perchlorate levels would not lead to any “meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public-water systems.” (Just one more in a long list of brilliant pronouncements by the FDA.)
According to those so-called experts who saw no benefit in regulating perchlorate at that time (just one year ago), the studies on health effects hadn’t produced conclusive results. “The question is,” asks perchlorate expert Thomas Zoeller, of the University of Massachusetts, “does a high-dose, short-term experiment predict a long-term, low-dose effect?” As it turns out, he and at least some of his peers in the regulatory agencies saw no urgency in answering that question, nor in limiting low-level exposure while it was being answered.
Now, under a new administration, the perchlorate question has gone back on the table. The EPA has been charged with reviewing the old “let it be” decision, and in the interim, has set a health advisory limit of 15ppb for drinking water. Apparently, some CDC studies early on did find that even at low levels, from 1-20 ppb, perchlorate could disrupt thyroid function. The states of Massachusetts and Maryland have set acceptable limits at 1 ppb, and California set the limit at 6 ppb. Compare that to the levels reported in wells near Los Alamos labs in New Mexico — from 30 ppb to 4,300 ppb. (By the way, if you’re drinking 4,300 ppb water, you probably need to stay away from open flames.) In Southern California, up to 89% of the wells tested measured levels higher than 6 ppb.
Still, the scientists seem confused. “Is [the effect on thyroid] an adverse effect?” asked Kevin Mayer of the San Francisco EPA office. “We’re putting a lot of pieces together to come up with what might be a threat and at what levels it might be a threat.”
Environmental and health advocates, on the other hand, harbor no such bewilderment. The Environmental Working Group, for instance, has analyzed the studies and based on their data, argues that national standards for perchlorate in drinking water should be one-tenth the level the Environmental Protection Agency currently recommends as safe. And now, the “new” EPA has done an about-face. Administrator Lisa Jackson released a recent statement asserting that, “It is critically important to protect sensitive populations, particularly infants and young children, from perchlorate in drinking water. As we evaluate the science around perchlorate, we will seek public input before making a regulatory determination based on the best science.”
In the past, those opposed to regulating perchlorate in water argued that there was no point since it’s already in soil, in fruit, in leafy vegetables, in breast milk, in infant formula (CDC tests found over 3 ppb in Enfamil), and in the atmosphere. The reasoning goes that if we limit perchlorate in water, we’ll get our fill from other sources, anyway. But as Richard Wiles, Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group says, “While it’s true that some sources of contamination are difficult to pin down, when you have one you can, you should definitely address it.”
As US Senator Barbara Boxer says, “Perchlorate, a toxic chemical contained in rocket fuel, does not belong in our drinking water….The science has made clear that perchlorate can threaten the health of pregnant women and young children across the nation, and that is why I have consistently worked for strong safeguards to protect people from this toxic chemical.”
But all is not bleak for fans of perchlorate. If it isn’t wanted on this planet, it seems to be highly highly treasured on Mars, where the presence of perchlorate has led scientists to hope that the planet might be habitable, because perchlorate attracts water. According to Universe Today, “Perchlorate could pull humidity from the Martian air. At higher concentrations, it might combine with water as a brine that stays liquid at Martian surface temperatures. Some microbes on Earth use perchlorate as food. Human explorers might find it useful as rocket fuel or for generating oxygen.”
And so we see yet again that one Earthman’s junk is another Martian’s treasure.