WASHINGTON, DC -- May 9, 2003-- Lettuce grown in the fall and winter months in Southern California and Arizona may contain high levels of toxic perchlorate, a chemical found in rocket fuel, according to a report sponsored by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Laboratory tests of supermarket produce showed that 18 percent of lettuce samples had detectable levels of perchlorate. An average serving of these contaminated samples contained four times more than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is safe in drinking water. The report estimated that by eating lettuce, 1.6 million American women of childbearing age are exposed daily during the winter months to more perchlorate than the EPA's recommended safe dose.
Perchlorate occurs naturally and is also man-made as the main ingredient of rocket propellant. Wastes from the manufacture and improper disposal of perchlorate-containing substances are being found more often in soil and water. According to EPA estimates, perchlorate contaminates more than 500 drinking water sources in 20 states that serve over 20 million people (Perchlorate Environmental Contamination: Toxicological Review and Risk Characterization, EPA Draft Report). Among contaminated sources is the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities, and irrigates 70 percent of the nation's lettuce grown from October to March.
Exposure to perchlorate interferes with the thyroid gland's uptake of iodide, decreasing its ability to regulate metabolism and produce necessary hormones. In turn, changes in thyroid hormone levels may lead to thyroid gland tumors. Pregnant women with damaged thyroids may have fetuses with birth defects. Children with impaired thyroids glands often suffer from developmental problems, including changes in behavior and decreased learning capacity (Perchlorate, EPA web site).
Department of Defense Seeks Exemption from Perchlorate Clean-up
At a time when perchlorate contamination has become an increasing issue, a proposed Department of Defense Authorization Bill (HR 1588) includes a hidden provision that would excuse the Pentagon and some of its contractors from cleaning up perchlorate at military bases (Sacramento Bee, May 3, 2003). This provision has caused an outcry from some environmental and consumer groups, and even from some groups of government officials, including the National Association of Attorneys General, the Environmental Council of the States and the National League of Cities.
Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has sent letters asking the federal Food and Drug Administration, the EPA, and the Department of Agriculture, to launch an investigation into the amounts and sources of toxic perchlorate contamination in our food system. She has also introduced federal legislation concerning perchlorate. SB 502 would designate perchlorate as a contaminant and establish a maximum contaminant level for perchlorate in drinking water by July 1, 2004. The level would be set to provide an adequate margin of safety for vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women. SB 820, the Perchlorate Community Right-to-Know Act of 2003, would:
- Require anyone who stored or transported more than 375 pounds of perchlorate since 1950 to make a report to the EPA; Require reports to the EPA about perchlorate discharges, including information about volume, monitoring methods, and remedial actions. The EPA must publish the data in the Federal Register;
- Require the EPA to annually publish a list of perchlorate storage facilities;
- Establish a loan program to help public water suppliers and owners of private wells to acquire clean drinking water to replace water contaminated by perchlorate.
- Provide penalties for failure to comply with perchlorate disclosure requirements.
In California, State Sen. Nell Soto (D-Ontario), has introduced state legislation that is similar in concept to SB 820. The state bill, SB 1004, would require anyone who discharges perchlorate into the public water supply in California to notify the State Water Resources Control Board. Perchlorate manufacturers would be required to provide information about storage and discharge of the substance on an annual basis. Failure to comply with these notification requirements would result in fines of $5,000 per day. In addition, the state would set up a Perchlorate Cleanup and Pollution Prevention Fund, supported by a six-cents-per-pound fee paid by facilities storing or transporting perchlorate The fund would be used to create a perchlorate monitoring system, and provide cleanup and emergency water replacement services.
For the full text of California SB 1004, see the California State Senate web site. Scroll to Bill Number and search on SB 1004. Copies of federal bills HR 1588, SB 502, and SB 820 may be found on the Thomas Legislative Information web site. Scroll to Bill Number, and search on the appropriate bill numbers.
At Brayton Purcell, we are concerned about environmental pollution and the exposure of workers and their families to unsafe chemicals. If you have been injured by exposure to a toxic substance, please feel free to contact us to learn about your legal options.