After nearly a decade of inaction, the US government is finally going to set safety standards for perchlorate in the nation’s water supply.
Perchlorate is a rocket fuel additive that causes thyroid abnormalities in newborns and children. Even tiny amounts of perchlorate can impair thyroid hormone production, especially in utero and in newborns. The resulting metabolic abnormalities can lead to irreversible loss of IQ and increased perceptual and behavioral problems.
Nearly all the perchlorate found in drinking water is the result of lax disposal methods at chemical plants, rocket test sites and military installations. Government estimates say that 16 million Americans are exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical. Independent scientists using state and federal data suggest the number is twice that.
White House and Pentagon officials, primarily in the Bush administration, had pressured the Environmental Protection Agency for years to refrain from establishing safe, allowable levels of the chemical in tap water, presumably because the cost of a national cleanup would cost several hundred million dollars.
But under new management (the Obama Administration), the EPA has announced it will establish standards for the toxic compound sometime during the next 2 years.
“As improved standards are developed and put in place, clean water technology innovators have an opportunity to create cutting edge solutions that will strengthen health protections and spark economic growth,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a press release.
As far back as 2002, an EPA risk assessment determined that safe levels of perchlorate in drinking water should be set at 1 part per billion. After 6 years of complete non-action on the matter, the Bush administration decided not to regulate the chemical. Instead, it established an “advisory guideline” that perchlorate concentrations should not exceed 15 parts per billion.
The delays and eventual inaction by the Bush administration were driven by the Defense Department. A GAO report published last year revealed levels in excess of the advised limit of 15 parts per billion at 53 Defense Department installations.
“Most of their sites were contaminated with perchlorate—there’s been a lot of interference by DOD in terms of stopping EPA from doing anything,” Mae Wu, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council said in an interview. “They want the limit to be as high as possible so they won’t have to clean up.”
Extra Credit: At the time of the perchlorate announcement, the EPA also said it planned to establish new limits for 16 other chemicals in drinking water. Included on the list is chromium 6, or hexavalent chromium. Movie buffs will recall, that’s the compound made famous by the 2000 Oscar-winning movie, Erin Brockovich, in which title character eventually forced Pacific Gas & Electric to compensate the residents of a town that had been contaminated with the substance.