Sunday, December 19, 2004

Perchlorate shenanigans: Same ol', same ol'

In a detailed article the (Riverside, CA) Press-Enterprise today sets out the tortured and unhappy story of how the perchlorate industry used hired-gun scientists to interfere with and delay needed regulations of a water contaminant whose prevalence in water supplies is becoming widespread. The article is too long to do justice to here, so read it yourself (you will have to endure a fairly invasive "free registration" process; you can make up a name, email and address if you wish). The article also has links to scans of some original documents. It is a superb job of reporting. Kudos to Douglas Beeman and David Danelski.

Perchlorate is an oxidizer used in military rockets, fireworks and road flares. Ninety-percent is used by the military, according to the Press-Enterprise. Health concerns have centered on effects on thyroid metabolism, particularly in the fetus. Thyroid function is important to neurological development. Severely hypothyroid infants with accompanying mental and physical retardation are known as cretins. The concern is that lesser degrees of interference with thyroid function will result in altered development. There is no dispute that high levels of perchlorate affect the thyroid. The question is what level in the water could be considered "safe."

The Press-Enterprise presents a detailed history of attempts to regulate this chemical, which is now being discovered in more and more water supplies. In 1992 EPA tentatively proposed a limit of 3.5 parts per billion in drinking water. The industry trade group countered, based on their own scientific studies, that 42,000 ppb was safe. In 2002, based on additional scientific evidence, the EPA lowered the reference dose to 1 ppb. There followed a tale of furious lobbying, attacks on one of the few independent scientists to weigh in on the issue and ultimately insinuation of industry influence directly into the Office of Management and Budget. One of the arguments used was that the 1 ppb limit would "interfere with national security." The result was the increasingly common EPA practice of kicking the hot-potato over to the National Academy. A Committee there is scheduled to report next month.

In an accompanying article, The Press-Enterprise reveals how the respected journal Environmental Health Perspectives allowed an industry scientist to redact and edit a news article on perchlorates in the journal. A link to a .pdf of the invoice of the scientist for his "services" to the trade group is included with the article.