Perchlorate threshold doubled

NAS study sets standards at 14ppb
– twice the state’s current public health standard
Gilroy – Perchlorate-contaminated drinking water is safe at concentrations more than double California’s current public health goal of six parts per billion, and about 14 times the level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a much-anticipated federal report to be released today by the National Academy of Sciences.

And if it’s adopted by state agencies, the NAS recommendation could dramatically lessen the responsibilities of the company that polluted South County.

“The committee believes that (this level) should protect the health of even the most sensitive populations,” said Dr. Richard B. Johnston, the chairman of the committee that produced the report. “We think the data we used established the fundamental level, below which we think is safe.”

In 2002, the EPA set a standard of one part of perchlorate per billion for drinking water. Last year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set the state’s public health goal for drinking water at six parts per billion. The NAS committee used a different formulation that translates roughly into 23 parts per billion, from both water and food.

Assuming, as does the OEHHA, that 60 percent of perchlorate intake is from drinking water, the NAS number allows for water contaminated at 14 parts per billion.

“I was hoping for a significantly more stringent standard that would be more protective of the community,” Sylvia Hamilton said Monday. Hamilton is chairwoman of the Perchlorate Community Advisory Group in San Martin. “I couldn’t sleep at night recommending that people drink water anywhere near 20 parts per billion, or even 10.”

That number could have a major influence on the cleanup up of the 10.5 mile perchlorate plume flowing south of the Olin Corp.’s former road-flare factory on Tennant Avenue in Morgan Hill.

Later this year, California’s Department of Health Services is expected to release a drinking water standard for the state. That number can not be lower than the public health goal, and spokesmen from the DHS and OEHHA said Monday that the NAS report will influence the state’s recommendations.

“Our initial take on it is that it’s very encouraging because the approach they used was so much in sync with ours,” said Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the OEHHA. “I think the question is whether we’ll need to fine tune the public health goal as opposed to making radical changes to it.”

Impact on Olin

But any change will alter Olin’s responsibilities. Currently the company is providing drinking water to residents whose water is contaminated at six parts per billion or higher, and the company could use a higher public health goal to argue for a less thorough cleanup.

Olin project manager Rick McClure said Monday that the company will continue to “negotiate all variables” relating to the cleanup.

“Olin has always done the right thing and will continue to do so,” McClure said. “We’ll continue to operate according to state law.”

And David Athey, project for the Central Coast regional water Quality Control Board, which is overseeing the Morgan Hill site, said that state law directs that all contaminated ground water must be cleaned to “background” or immeasurable levels.

But the law also gives Olin an opening to appeal a cleanup order on scientific grounds. The company can argue that it would be economically or scientifically unfeasible to cleanup to levels below the public health goal.

“If Olin decides to submit something with new a scientific analysis we’ll consider it,” Athey said. “We’ll consider anything.”

And Olin’s accountability will also depend on future studies of the nation’s food supply. It’s not yet known how widespread perchlorate is in the food supply, but late last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found it in lettuce and milk in all 15 states where it took samples. It’s also not clear whether perchlorate-contaminated food is as harmful as contaminated water.

With so many unanswered questions, Johnston said that it’s impossible for the NAS to make policy recommendations.

“Whether a national standard will be set isn’t clear, but we’ve stopped short of making an extension into water content,” he said. “That’s a policy decision that will vary from site to site and community to community. It’s an important next step, but we’re not going to comment on that.”

Although the NAS figure was far below the 200 parts per billion advocated by the defense industry, it was met with passionate approbation from environmental advocates, who claim that the report was subject to “unprecedented influence” from the White House and Department of Defense.

“The Academy is supposed to be the Supreme Court of Science,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who sits on another NAS committee. “That reputation was tarnished by this panel.”

The NRDC is suing the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Defense Department to release documents that the NRDC says will show the government’s fingerprints all over the NAS report.

Solomon said that White House was given advance brief on the “charge” questions given the committee by the EPA, which goes against normal protocol.

“There was an enormous amount of back and forth and evidence of information being shared in advance with the White House,” Solomon said. “We believe the White House reviewed, and may have even edited, the questions asked of the committee.”

And at least three original committee members left due to conflicts of interest. One, Richard Bull, was a contractor for Lockheed Martin Corp.

The NAS committee was convened by the request of the Defense Department, along with the Department of Energy and NASA, in response to the 2002 EPA recommendation. Perchlorate is a by-product of rocket-fuel, and the Defense Department and defense contractors are responsible for contaminating – and cleaning – many sites around the country.

The science

Perchlorate is a salt that is highly soluble in water and has been shown to inhibit thyroid function in animals and people. The EPA study that recommended one part per billion relied on data from rats. Johnston said Monday that the committee was “insecure about extrapolating from rats.” because their thyroids function differently from humans.

The NAS committee did not conduct any original research but relied on five existing studies, at least one of which was funded by the Defense Department. All of the studies used relatively small testing groups (the most influential had 14 subjects), and none of them examined long-term effects of perchlorate on the thyroid.

But Johnston said the science was sound because the panel gave the most weight to the effects of perchlorate that precede any king of thyroid disorder. No subjects in any of the studies, Johnston said, showed any change in thyroid function at the level the NAS says is safe.

But the reports critics charge that the panel ignored real differences between adults and babies, the group most at-risk from perchlorate contamination.

Solomon said that babies lack the iodine supply that helps protect adults from short-term exposure to perchlorate. She said that children with iodine deficiencies have exhibited lower IQs and other evidence of brain disjunction.

To compensate for a lack of information on the effects of perchlorate on pregnant woman, the NAS report suggests that they take iodine supplements.

“That’s unconscionable,” said Andria Ventura, of San Francisco’s Clean Water Action. “That’s putting the onus on the victim.”

Ventura said that the only acceptable contaminant level is the one part per billion advocated by the EPA.

“It’s a travesty when pressure from those with political and economic power exert blatant influence on a such an historically reputable organization,” she said. “The primary thing to remember here is that people should not have to drink water with a twist of perchlorate. What people want, and deserve access to, is simply water.”

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