Perchlorate Safe at Higher Levels in Water, Panel Claims

Jan. 11, 2005

Environmental groups are criticizing a new report that states perchlorate contamination is less dangerous than previously believed.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel claims the chemical, an ingredient in rocket fuel and explosives, is safe to consume at levels 20 times higher than the standard currently under review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

If accepted as valid by EPA and the states, this new conclusion could result in a savings of tens of millions of dollars in remediation costs for defense contractors such as Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which has been sued for dumping the chemical near missile testing sites in California.

Yesterday, an environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), charged that the White House and Pentagon had lobbied behind the scenes to induce a better spin on the chemical’s risks.

"This report confirms our worst fears – that the White House and the Defense Department and their contractors were able to unduly influence the academy," Jennifer Sass, a scientist at the New York-based NRDC, told The Baltimore Sun. "It's part of a brazen campaign to downplay the dangers of perchlorate."

Public records recently obtained through a lawsuit proved that the Department of Defense and White House had discussed how the scope of the study should be limited, NRDC officials stated.

The DoD and White House also discussed which scientists should be part of the panel, according to the NRDC. As it turns out, two scientists on the 15-member panel had at one time performed work for the defense or perchlorate industries. A third scientist stepped down after being accused of a conflict of interest.

In addition, some of the studies used by the NAS to arrive at its conclusions were actually funded by the defense industry or Pentagon, the NRDC said.

William Colglazier, executive officer of the National Academies of Science, denied that the nonprofit organization – whose members are selected by independent academics around the world – was in any way biased or influenced by lobbying.

"We were completely independent …The academy has total control over who was appointed, and there were no conflicts of interest," Colglazier said.

Contrary to this claim, his organization did confirm that one of the five health studies relied on most heavily by the NAS was funded in part by the Perchlorate Study Group – a defense industry trade association that includes Lockheed Martin.

In recent years, perchlorate has been discovered in the drinking water supplies of more than 11 million people in 35 states. Health experts have long held that the chemical can inhibit thyroid function and is considered particularly dangerous to children.

Not surprisingly, the NAS panel instead concluded that the chemical was "unlikely to lead to thyroid tumors in humans." In the panel’s report, it states that at high enough levels, perchlorate can hurt the thyroid gland's production of hormones. However, it adds, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether trace levels of perchlorate will cause brain damage or developmental delays in infants – as some scientists have asserted prior to this study.

The EPA will review the report and consider its findings to create national drinking water standards.

Source: The Baltimore Sun