If Yes Means Yes, EPA Must Act on Perchlorate

Shana Campbell Jones

Jan. 23, 2009

When it comes to protecting the environment and human health, the difference between what the Obama Administration portends and what the Bush Administration wrought may reside in the difference between three little words: “yes, we can” versus “no we won’t.” How and when Lisa Jackson, President-elect Obama’s pick to head the EPA, tackles perchlorate will be an early indicator of whether the difference between Bush and Obama will be as dramatic as environmentalists and public health advocates hope. Perchlorate, a chemical found in rocket fuel and munitions, has contaminated at unsafe levels the drinking water of 16.6 million Americans, according to the EPA.  Perchlorate blocks the uptake of iodide into thyroid. This is particularly bad during pregnancy and for breastfeeding mothers, because iodide is essential to proper fetal and infant brain development. If fetuses and breastfeeding babies don’t get the iodide they need, permanent mental issues result, such as ADHD, lower verbal intelligence quotient, lower overall IQ, and lower motor performance


For years, the Department of Defense, which, together with the rest of the aerospace sector, accounts for approximately 90 percent of U.S. consumption of perchlorate, has labored to block any regulation of the chemical. Indeed, its efforts have been so effective that, in October, EPA suggested limiting the amount of perchlorate in water to 15 parts per billion – significantly back-pedaling from its 2002 recommendation of 1 part per billion.  As CPR Policy Analyst Matt Shudtz pointed out on this blog, the fun-and-games have only continued since, with EPA’s Inspector General issuing a report in December asserting that yet more study of perchlorate was needed, thus again delaying action.  


While it is easy to point fingers at the Bush Administration, Lisa Jackson’s tenure as head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection reveals a record of delay on perchlorate as well. As a recent ProPublica article pointed out, a panel of state scientists urged New Jersey to regulate perchlorate in 2005. Jackson’s former department never took decisive action.  


At Jackson’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Senator Barbara Boxer asked Jackson about regulating perchlorate. Jackson said she “would commit the EPA ‘to immediately review the threat to human health.’"  Senator Boxer, who has long called for EPA action on perchlorate, seemed satisfied with this answer. Let’s hope when Jackson says “immediate review” she means immediate action, not just more study. Lisa Jackson, do you plan to regulate perchlorate and keep our drinking water safe? We’re expecting a resounding "yes."


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