The Trump administration and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler have decided to end Federal regulation of the toxic chemical Perchlorate in America’s drinking water. Perchlorate is a chemical used in explosives, such as rocket fuel, fireworks, and ammunition. When the chemical runs off into our drinking water supply, it is known to inhibit the function of the thyroid gland and can damage the brain development in fetuses and infants. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, perchlorate can “cause measurable drops in IQ in newborns,” and one study showed that “9 out of 13 breastfeeding infants were ingesting significant levels of the chemical.”
In the early 2000’s, the Bush administration had decided not to regulate levels of the toxin in drinking water. In 2011, the Obama administration determined that “Perchlorate from runoff contaminates the drinking water of as many as 16 million Americans,” and decided the EPA should set a maximum limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb) of perchlorate allowable in our drinking water. Some individual states have since set their own limits for allowable concentrations of perchlorate; Massachusetts and California setting their limits respectively at 2 and 6 ppb. Andrew Wheeler and the current EPA had originally proposed setting the maximum limit for allowable concentrations to be at 56 ppb, but after analyzing the local water tests of only 15 water systems in a total of 12 states, have decided to drop the federal regulation of the chemical all together.
Wheeler claims new analyses show that perchlorate is not harmful in such low concentrations as we once thought, and that based on this new fact, the federal government no longer needs to regulate the chemical. Wheeler says that state agencies are doing enough on their own and the EPA’s analyses show that the country’s water supply contains low enough levels of the toxin. In a draft final action, the EPA noted that up to 620,000 people may be drinking water that contains perchlorate concentrations higher than “levels of concern” (56 ppb being what the current administration considers a “level of concern” versus 15 ppb of the previous administration or 6 ppb and 2 ppb of California and Massachusetts). The administration has said that it was “not in the public interest” to regulate perchlorate because it is burdensome to business, and the move is part of President Trump’s promise to “pare back burdensome ‘one-size-fits-all’ overregulation for the American people.”
The scientific community and environmental activists have lashed out at this new decision by the EPA. Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council says, “[This] 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.” Olson also points out that the EPA had required some nationwide testing for perchlorate in drinking water only from 2001-2005, and thus it is “impossible to determine how severe a problem remains nationally.” Olson believes the decision by the EPA is illegal because it “defies a court-ordered consent decree requiring the administration regulate the chemical.” After the Obama administration in 2011 had decided that perchlorate could not be allowed in drinking water in concentrations higher than 15 ppb, a “legal duty to regulate perchlorate” was issued. The EPA still never issued an official standard to regulate the toxin, so in 2016 the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the EPA in federal court to set limits on perchlorate. The judge hearing the case decided the EPA needed “a fire lit under them,” and so 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.” An extension was granted to the EPA for more study and the due date for an established standard was moved to late June 2020. Now, in June 2020, the EPA is claiming perchlorate requires higher concentrations than previously thought to be considered dangerous and so they are not going to set any standard for its concentrations in drinking water, because studies by the agency show that the majority of the country’s drinking water contains perchlorate concentrations lower than 56 ppb. The agency claims its analyses of just 15 drinking water facilities in only 12 states, shows, mostly, perchlorate concentrations are below 56 ppb, and so the rest of the country’s drinking water must be fine and the state agencies can do their own regulating of the toxin.
The NRDC points out that the 15 ppb health advisory established by the Obama administration for perchlorate concentrations was based on a 2005 study from the National Academy of Sciences. Wheeler, on the other hand, now claims that “a level of 56 ppb would be safe, and perhaps even 90 ppb would be fine.” The EPA has even admitted “that a standard of 56 ppb would allow those kids exposed to perchlorate in drinking water at above this level to have an average IQ loss of two points. People at the lower end of the IQ spectrum could lose far more IQ points.” The NRDC says that “In concluding 56 ppb is safe, the agency would allow an unprecedented level of adverse impact on children’s brain development.” The council also points out that the EPA “has decided to ignore all other health effects of perchlorate that scientists say can occur at lower doses, rejecting its own previous analysis. EPA’s new supposedly “safe” level is nearly 10 times higher than California’s standard for perchlorate of 6 ppb. It also is 28 times higher than Massachusetts’s standard of 2 ppb.”
Based on a report from the National Research Council on the effects of ingesting perchlorate, some California experts now recommend the standard for concentrations of the toxin be brought down to 1 ppb to protect bottle-fed infants. A “blue-ribbon” panel of scientists from New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute recommend “a maximum safe level of 5 ppb.” The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) even put out a statement saying, “It should be noted that this decision [by the EPA] was not reviewed by the peer reviewers of the U.S. EPA’s approach for the risk assessment of perchlorate.” The NJDEP further noted that even “using traditional EPA assumptions and analysis, a standard of 8 ppb would be called for.” What this means is that the EPA’s claim that 56 ppb or less of perchlorate is a safe concentration according to the latest health risk assessment, is not true. The NJDEP is saying that if the EPA conducted its health risk assessment the way the peer review boards said they should, then according to their calculations, the EPA should have recommended 8 ppb be the maximum allowable concentration of perchlorate in drinking water, not 56 ppb.
The NJDEP also points out that not all states have the laws in place to set their own regulations for perchlorate concentrations and thus rely on federal regulations for protection. So, for the EPA to justify no federal regulation based on the premise that states like California and Massachusetts have been able to successfully regulate the chemical, is not a valid argument. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges “the strongest possible” federal limits. The AAP states that for the EPA to not regulate perchlorate “would set a precedent inconsistent with EPA’s stated mission to protect public health.” This statement rings particularly true when it appears that the EPA is providing the American public with a faulty analysis of the collected data.
- Natural Resources Defense Council works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. combining the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild. https://www.nrdc.org/
- American Academy of Pediatrics an organization of 67,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults. https://www.aap.org/en-us/Pages/Default.aspx
- Environmental Defense Fund one of the world’s largest environmental organizations, with more than 2.5 million members and a staff of 700 scientists, economists, policy experts, and other professionals around the world. https://www.edf.org/
- Agnarone, K. (2019, September 3). Regulations.gov (United States of America, State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0780-0266
- Frazin, R. (2020, June 18). EPA declines to regulate rocket fuel chemical tied to developmental damage. The Hill. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/503359-epa-declines-to-regulate-rocket-fuel-chemical-tied-to-developmental
- Friedman, L., & Davenport, C. (2020, June 18). E.P.A. Won’t Regulate Toxic Compound Linked to Fetal Brain Damage. The New York Times. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/climate/trump-epa-perchlorate.html
- Knickmeyer, E. (2020, June 18). EPA drops regulation for contaminant linked to brain damage in babies. Abc 7 Eyewitness News. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://abc7.com/perchlorate-obama-era-president-donald-trump-epa-rolls-back/6254106/
- National Research Council. 2005. Health Implications of Perchlorate Ingestion. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11202.
- Olson, E. D. (2020, May 14). EPA Refuses to Protect Children from Perchlorate-Contaminated Tap Water [Web log post]. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://www.nrdc.org/experts/erik-d-olson/epa-refuses-protect-children-perchlorate-contaminated-tap-water