California Admits Drinking Water Threat to Pregnant Women and Infants, But Groups Say Public Health Goal Still Too High

Environmental & Public Health Groups Call for Urgent Action to Set Perchlorate Standard

SAN FRANCISCO (March 11, 2004) - For the first time, the state of California is acknowledging that a chemical used in rocket fuel poses a serious threat to public health. But the state will issue a "health goal" for the presence of perchlorate in drinking water that environmental and health groups say will not fully protect pregnant women, fetuses and infants. The chemical contaminates water supplies for approximately 20 million people in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, a problem the groups say calls for urgent action.

"The state admits that infants are among the most sensitive to perchlorate toxicity," said Gina Solomon, M.D., M.P.H., a senior scientist at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "Yet the goal it's setting does not account for the huge water consumption of bottle-fed babies, nor the fact that perchlorate can get into mother's milk."

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA), is publishing its public health goal (PHG) for perchlorate, stating that the chemical's presence in drinking water in excess of 6 parts per billion (ppb) may harm pregnant women and fetuses. But critics say even minute amounts of the chemical pose a serious health hazard.

"It doesn't take much," said family physician Felix Aguilar, M.D., M.P.H. "Tiny amounts of perchlorate, even doses of less than a single part per billion, may affect the thyroid's ability to produce hormones. This poses a problem in fetal and infant development when the child needs thyroid hormones for the brain to develop normally."

To date, perchlorate has polluted 563 drinking water wells in California. The Kerr-McGee perchlorate factory in Henderson, Nevada has leached over a million pounds of the toxin into Lake Mead, and the American Pacific Corporation factory in Henderson threatens to do the same. Contaminated water flows into the lower Colorado River, which supplies drinking water for approximately 20 million people in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Perchlorate contamination also has been found in numerous communities throughout California, including Rialto, Colton, Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley, Redlands, Santa Clarita, Sacramento County, Simi Valley, Beaumont, and San Martin.

"We're talking about one of the biggest pollution problems in American history," said Penny Newman, Director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Riverside. "Not only are hundreds of pounds of perchlorate bleeding into drinking water sources, including the Colorado River, every day, but it is now being found in lettuce, milk and beef."

The environmental and public health groups say the U.S. military and polluting industries have exerted tremendous pressure on the state government to delay setting a public health goal or to set it so high that the Department of Defense would not be held liable for costly cleanups. "The polluters have lobbied, sued, pushed their own shoddy science, and tried basically every trick in the book to try to get themselves off the hook for cleanup," said Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group. "It is unprecedented how much they were able to interfere with the process of publishing a public health goal."

A California law (SB 1822, Sher) required the state to set a perchlorate standard by January 1, but the state missed the deadline. The Department of Health Services (DHS) is charged with setting an enforceable cleanup standard -- called the "maximum contaminant level" (MCL) -- based on the public health goal. Cal/EPA says it could take 18 more months for DHS to do that. Critics say more delay is unacceptable, and the department should declare an emergency to speed up the process.

"The state should move quickly to set the drinking water standard, a move that will drive the cleanup effort," said Lenny Siegel of Center for Public Environmental Oversight. "The state has announced that perchlorate is toxic and given us a number, 6 ppb. So why do we have to wait another 18 months for the state to officially announce a cleanup level? Let's start enforcing this number to clean up our water supplies now."

"When the effects of a chemical are so far reaching," said Newman, "and when it targets children, the government should be better safe than sorry."

"Here's the problem," said Sujatha Jahagirdar of Environment California, "If California fails to set a protective standard today, in a few years the state may have to go back and re-clean the same water. After all, U.S. EPA's tentative public health goal is 1 ppb. Massachusetts' action level is 4 ppb. And new studies will likely compel the state to go back and regulate perchlorate more stringently."

"Perchlorate contamination from the Kerr-McGee facility has created the largest water-borne plume of drinking water contamination from a single point source in the United States, stretching from Tucson, Arizona to the Southern California Coast," said Matt Hagemann, a former senior science advisor to the U.S. EPA, who noted that the Colorado River as it flows into California has perchlorate concentrations of up to 5 to 9 ppb. "The cleanup at Kerr-McGee, which discharges water to a tributary of Lake Mead, is three times the draft PHG of 6 ppb and is at the high-end of U.S. EPA's guidance -- this is not acceptable, given the vital nature of the Colorado River as the source of drinking water for over 20 million people."

Perchlorate also is being considered for listing as a reproductive toxicant under California's Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which mandates public notification of reproductive toxicants and forbids discharge of these chemicals into sources of drinking water. A public comment period will conclude on April 27. Final posting is not slated to take place until next year.

The coalition of public health and environmental groups includes NRDC, Environmental Working Group, Environment California, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Center for Public Environmental Oversight, Clean Water Action, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Soil Water Air Protection Enterprise, and California Communities Against Toxics.