EPA Blows Up Court Order Over Rocket Fuel Contaminant in Drinking Water

EPA Increases Acceptable Levels Up to Six Times More for Perchlorate Linked to IQ Loss

WASHINGTON ­– Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler today defied a court-ordered consent decree requiring the agency to issue a drinking water standard for the widespread contaminant perchlorate. Studies show this chemical poses threats to the brain development of fetuses and young infants and has been found in millions of Americans’ tap water. 

The following is a statement by Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council):

“Today’s decision is illegal, unscientific, and unconscionable. The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening the health of pregnant moms and young children with toxic chemicals in their drinking water at levels that literally can cause loss of IQ points. Is this what the Environmental Protection Agency has come to?” 


To explain why it is revoking its previous finding, EPA now contends its 2008 health advisory for perchlorate in drinking water is far more protective of health than needed. The agency also says that levels of perchlorate in states that have regulated it have come down—ignoring that the health effects data these states relied upon to regulate should drive EPA to set a perchlorate standard far lower (in the single digit parts per billion) than the agency now says is safe. The agency’s 2008 health advisory of 15 ppb health advisory was based on a 2005 National Academy of Sciences study. Instead, Wheeler now finds a level of 56 ppb would be safe, and muses that perhaps even 90 ppb would be fine. EPA admits that a standard of 56 ppb would allow certain kids exposed to perchlorate in drinking water at above this level to have an average IQ loss of two points. 

Perchlorate is an endocrine disruptor that can harm the developing brains of fetuses and young children. Massachusetts and California have set their own drinking water standards of 2 ppb to 6 ppb, respectively, because of inaction at the federal level. EPA now cites the reduction in levels of tap water contamination in those two states as a reason that no national standard is needed, refusing to address the widespread contamination in other states. EPA previously had found that as many as 16 million Americans’ tap water contains perchlorate, though it has not required national monitoring for over 15 years.  

Perchlorate, widely used in rocket fuel and munitions, and also a component of fireworks and certain other industrial chemicals, is the first drinking water contaminant that EPA has proposed to regulate in nearly 24 years under the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 for setting new standards for unregulated contaminants. The Obama EPA found in 2011 that a perchlorate drinking water standard was needed to protect health, especially that of vulnerable fetuses and young children. This finding triggered a legal duty to regulate perchlorate. When EPA was slow to issue standards after that finding, NRDC sued, and a federal judge hearing the case said that EPA needs “a fire lit under them” to address the urgent problem, and issued an order saying EPA had a duty to take action on perchlorate. In response, the agency agreed in a court-approved consent decree to propose a perchlorate drinking water standard by October 2018 and to finalize it by late 2019. EPA sought extensions, citing the need for more study, and secured a June 2020 deadline.

Additional Resources:

EPA Refuses to Protect Children from Perchlorate-Contaminated Tap Water – Erik Olson blog, May 14, 2020.

NRDC Joins Medical Experts: Drinking Perchlorate is Bad!  ­ – Jen Sass blog, August 19, 2019

NRDC Perchlorate Comments to EPA – August 19, 2019



NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.​