State proposes to lower perchlorate in drinking water

SACRAMENTO - On Monday, California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) proposed revising its current 6 parts per billion (ppb) Public Health Goal (PHG) for the drinking water contaminant perchlorate to 1 ppb.Their recommendation is the result of a five-year reevaluation of the current PHG, required under state law, based on new scientific studies on the potential health effects of perchlorate. "The science is clear that perchlorate poses a serious public health threat, especially to fetuses, infants, and pregnant women, despite attempts to downplay the danger by polluters over the years," said Andria Ventura, Program Manager for Clean Water Action, an environmental group working on perchlorate contamination. "We support revising the PHG to reflect this threat and call on the Department of Public Health to set a new drinking water standard that will protect those communities that are consuming perchlorate now." A reduced PHG leaves the door open to a more stringent, and protective standard, holding responsible parties accountable for cleaning up sites that are below the current standard. Perhaps more importantly, it could influence the rest of the country. Thanks to efforts, particularly by the Department of Defense, there is currently no national drinking water standard for perchlorate. The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "regulatory determination" on whether to undertake a drinking water standard-setting process. "We believe EPA should set a federal drinking water standard for perchlorate and that California's action should inform that process," said Clean Water Action's National Campaign Director Lynn Thorp. "The state should be applauded for rising above political wrangling and letting the science determine a public health goal that protects children and other vulnerable populations." A PHG is the daily exposure level that is considered, through scientific analysis, to be safe in drinking water throughout a person's lifetime. It takes into consideration the impacts on the total population, including those most vulnerable, such as fetuses, infants, pregnant women, and the elderly. Once it is established, the Department of Public Health (DPH) is tasked with developing a legal standard, as close to the PHG as is technologically and economically feasible. Currently, California, which has the most widespread perchlorate problem in the nation, is only one of two states to regulate the contaminant in drinking water. California's standard matches the current PHG at 6 ppb; Massachusetts's standard is more stringent at 2 ppb. Perchlorate can interfere with the thyroid's ability to take up iodide, thus disrupting its ability to produce thyroid hormone. Even a small drop in thyroid hormone for a short period of time in a developing fetus, infant, or small child can cause irreparable damage to brain development. The problem is exacerbated by scientific findings that approximately 36 percent of US women are iodide deficient, meaning that over 2 million of those of child bearing age would require medical treatment when pregnant to protect their unborn child. The health impacts can range from problems such as learning disabilities, weakened vision and hearing, and impaired motor skills, to mental retardation. While perchlorate does exist in nature, the vast majority of it is man made. It is used primarily as a component in solid rocket fuel, though it has other applications, such as highway flares, fireworks, and even as a boutique fertilizer. Major polluters include military facilities, government contractors, and the aerospace industry, all of whom have worked diligently both in California and nationally to stop regulation of perchlorate in drinking water that would hold them accountable for cleanup. In California, tens of thousand of residents are impacted by perchlorate in their wells. Particular hot spots include Los Angeles, which gets drinking water from the Columbia River that was contaminated by Kerr McGee Corporation operating out of Henderson Nevada, Rancho Cordova whose wells are contaminated by a local Aerojet site, and communities such as Santa Clarita and Rialto. In the South Bay communities of Morgan Hill and San Martin, an 8-mile groundwater plume of perchlorate originating from Olin Corporation's former highway flare manufacturing site has resulted in the contamination of over 800 private and public wells. Olin is being held responsible by the Central Valley Regional Water Board for cleaning up the contamination and providing bottled water to residents whose levels still exceed the drinking water standard. It is unclear if the change in the PHG will require them to expand the number of households that will receive alternative water however. "Our major concern is that there is a backlog at DPH in setting drinking water standards," says Ventura. "That could result in inaction on perchlorate, meaning that the people of California will continue to drink it at unsafe levels. That is simply not acceptable." Reluctance on the part of DPH is not the only problem, as strong opposition is expected from polluters and some drinking water providers to the proposed change in the PHG. Clearly the stakes are high. Clean Water Action is the nation's largest grassroots group focused on water, energy and environmental health. Clean Water Action's 1 million members, participate in Clean Water Action's programs for clean, safe and affordable water, prevention of health-threatening pollution, and creation of environmentally-safe jobs and businesses. Clean Water Action's nonpartisan campaigns empower people to make democracy work.

********** Published: January 13, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 39