Should Perchlorate in Drinking Water Be Regulated? Biden’s EPA Says No; Doctors and Environmentalists Say Yes

carbonated-water-300x200As environmental lawyers, one of our passions is fighting for clean drinking water for communities affected by contamination. So, it is disappointing that the EPA, under President Biden, has endorsed a Trump administration decision and decided not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water.

What is Perchlorate?

Perchlorate is a contaminant that can be found in groundwater, surface water, and soil. Most perchlorate manufactured in the U.S. is used for rockets and missiles. Perchlorate-based chemicals are also used in safety flares, fireworks, matches, pyrotechnics, explosives, and batteries. Because perchlorates are used in military applications, some countries prefer to keep the amounts they make confidential. So, we do not know the exact amount of perchlorates produced or used in the United States. However, high levels of perchlorates are often found near military bases where the chemicals have been used in rocket fuel. And to no one’s surprise, the Department of Defense and other military contractors oppose limiting perchlorate in drinking water.

Where Does Perchlorate Contamination Come From?

Perchlorate contamination often comes from man-made sources. The manufacture, use, and disposal of rockets and missiles have led to perchlorate being released into the environment. Other man-made sources of perchlorate contamination include the manufacture and use of safety flares and fireworks, as well as contamination from a nitrate fertilizer from Chile that was regularly used in the United States for many years. Perchlorate was released directly to soil and plants in areas where this fertilizer was used. There also appear to be natural sources of perchlorate in the environment, with higher levels of the chemical found in arid climates in parts of West Texas and New Mexico. Unfortunately, human activities and natural sources have led to the widespread presence of perchlorates in the environment.

Because perchlorates are soluble in water and mobile in soil, they can move from soil surfaces into groundwater when they enter the environment. From there, perchlorates can contaminate the fruit, vegetables, water, and milk that we consume. Once in the environment, perchlorates are known to remain for long periods of time.

Why Are Perchlorates Potentially Dangerous to your Health?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Perchlorate can damage the development of fetuses and children and cause measurable drops in IQ in newborns.” This has led the organization to urge the government to impose the “strongest possible” federal limits on the chemical. Research presented to the Society for Endocrinology in the U.K. indicates that pregnant women with frequent exposure to perchlorate may have decreased levels of a thyroid hormone that is necessary for fetal brain development, potentially leading to developmental issues after birth. Pregnant women and the developing fetus may be especially vulnerable to perchlorate exposure in drinking water, especially in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. Women with critically low levels of iodine may miscarry, or their fetuses can develop congenital hypothyroidism which may stunt the fetus’ growth and affect the proper development of the central nervous system.

In adults,  high levels of perchlorate may inhibit the function of the thyroid gland, leading to hypothyroidism. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives shows that even lower levels of perchlorate can be detrimental to thyroid function in women in particular. Perchlorate interferes with the thyroid gland’s uptake of iodine, reducing the production of thyroid hormones (T3 and T4). This effect is seen especially in women who consume less than 100 micrograms of iodine a day, which would include 36% of women in the US. Low levels of thyroid hormones in the blood may lead to adverse effects on the skin, pulmonary system, cardiovascular system, neuromuscular system, nervous system, liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, blood, skeleton, male and female reproductive system, and numerous endocrine organs. Other possible effects of a decrease in the production of thyroid hormones include an altered metabolic rate, hypothyroidism, and thyroid tumors.

How Might I Be Exposed to Perchlorate?

Perchlorates enter the environment near facilities that manufacture rockets and military installations that use and test rockets. Factories that make or use perchlorates may also release the chemicals into the environment. Sources of exposure can include:

  • Drinking water that is contaminated with perchlorate.
  • Eating food, including vegetables, fruit, and milk, contaminated with perchlorate.
  • Living near a factory that makes flares, fireworks, or other explosive devices.
  • Living near a waste site, a rocket manufacturing and testing facility, or a military installation.
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco may expose you to perchlorates.

Even though the drinking water for as many as 16 million Americans may be contaminated with perchlorate, the EPA has decided not to regulate perchlorate because of old data from the Trump administration that claimed there were not enough water systems containing unsafe levels of perchlorate to justify regulating the chemical. That data, however, relied on a flawed analysis that set a “safe” perchlorate level that is 10 or more times higher than health-based limits set by state regulators. Moreover, the EPA ignored more recent data from the United State Geological Survey showing widespread perchlorate contamination. This makes the recent EPA decision to forgo setting limits for perchlorate incomprehensible.

The potential health effects of perchlorate coupled with widespread contamination expose the irresponsible nature of the EPA’s decision to side with military contractors over safeguarding the health of newborns and pregnant mothers. We would expect this from a pro-industry administration, but to see this from a supposedly pro-environment administration is disappointing.

It appears to be yet another example of administrations from both parties working against the public to shield corporations and government from lawsuits. One of the most egregious examples of this occurred during the Obama administration when the Justice Department sided with polluters in a Supreme Court case that ultimately denied justice to U.S. Marines and their families who had contracted cancer from contamination at Camp LeJeune.

This administration needs to do better.

As advocates for a safe environment, we ask the Biden Administration to reconsider its misguided decision. And we stand with the Natural Resources Defense Council in their efforts to resume litigation against the EPA to compel them to regulate perchlorate.

Sources:

https://www.science.org/content/article/perchlorate-impacts-thyroid-low-doses#:~:text=At%20high%20levels%2C%20perchlorate%20can,to%20thyroid%20function%20in%20women.

https://www.dshs.state.tx.us/epitox/fact_sheets/phys_pch.pdf

https://time.com/5013321/perchlorate-health-risks/

https://www.nrdc.org/media/2022/220331-1

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