EPA Says It Will Regulate Perchlorate Based on Potential Effects to Thyroid

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Feb. 2 it will develop the first national standard for perchlorate in drinking water over concerns the contaminant might affect the normal function of the thyroid, which produces important developmental hormones.

The action reverses a decision made by the previous administration and comes after EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson ordered EPA scientists to undertake a thorough review of the emerging science on perchlorate (33 CRR 788, 8/10/09).

The agency also said it will develop a separate regulation addressing up to 16 chemicals that may cause cancer. The group of volatile organic compounds includes the regulated chemicals trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), which will be revised, as well as other regulated and unregulated contaminants discharged from industrial operations.

The VOC standard is part of EPA's new strategy for drinking water, which is to address contaminants as groups rather than individually. EPA said this strategy will be more cost effective and will provide public health protections more quickly.

In making its announcements, the agency said perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and man-made chemical that is used in the manufacture of rocket fuel, fireworks, flares, and explosives. Scientific research indicates that perchlorate may disrupt the thyroid's ability to produce hormones critical to developing fetuses and infants, the agency said.

California Senator Lauds Decision.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and an environmental group hailed EPA's announcement to regulate perchlorate.

“After calling for this standard for over 8 years, I was so pleased to hear Administrator Jackson's wonderful news that we are finally going to protect our families from perchlorate,” Boxer said in a Feb. 2 statement. “I will do everything I can to make sure this new protection moves forward.”

Mae Wu, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a blog posting that EPA was taking an important first step in deciding to regulate perchlorate after “a decade of pushing by NRDC.”

Setting an actual limit for the contaminant “is still to come and will still require more work on our part to make sure the Agency sets a number that protects public health,” Wu said. “But today's announcement marks a big shift for the Agency.”

Sources Other Than Rocket Fuel.

The Department of Defense is responsible for most of the perchlorate in U.S. drinking water from activities using rocket fuel, Wu said. Until now, the Defense Department has “successfully stopped our government from doing anything about the contamination,” Wu said.

The Defense Department, however, maintains it is not responsible for most perchlorate contamination in water and says there are many other sources other than rocket fuel. Department officials were not available for comment Feb. 2.

The Perchlorate Information Bureau, a clearinghouse for scientific information on the contaminant, said Feb. 2 that “the best available science, [the Safe Drinking Water Act], and EPA's own Office of Inspector General all point to the conclusion that a national perchlorate standard is not needed.” PIB is supported by users and manufacturers of perchlorate, including Aerojet, American Pacific Corp., and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Water Utilities Change Position.

Alan Roberson, director of federal relations for the American Water Works Association, said his organization's position has evolved from strongly supporting perchlorate regulation in 2005 to opposing it in 2011.

AWWA, which represents water utilities of all sizes, has found from its studies over the past six years that regulating perchlorate would not provide a “meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction” as is required by the Safe Drinking Water Act for a new regulation, he said.

Monitoring data show more than 4 percent of public water systems have detected perchlorate, and between 5 million and 17 million people might be served drinking water containing perchlorate, according to EPA.

Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, told BNA in a Feb. 2 e-mail: “As EPA has determined that regulation of perchlorate in drinking water systems would provide a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction, AMWA looks forward to working with the agency to ensure that the final regulation takes into consideration the best available science.”

VanDe Hei also said AMWA will work with EPA to ensure that utilities are provided with the best available tools and technologies so they will be able to comply with the future standard.

Once EPA makes a final determination to regulate a contaminant in drinking water, the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the agency to propose a standard, known as a national primary drinking water regulation, within 24 months and then issue a final standard within 18 months of the proposal.

Urgent Health Priority.

Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Regulatory Reform, called EPA's decision “bittersweet” in a Feb. 2 statement. “It's great that EPA has recognized the need to regulate, but the agency had adopted such a leisurely timeline that the entire effort could end up being undercut,” she said.

“EPA is actually saying that a regulation wouldn't be finalized until after 2012, and that gives scant comfort,” she said. Instead, regulating perchlorate should be an urgent public health priority, Steinzor said.

“Rather than simply declaring its intentions and laying out such a long timeline, EPA should have issued a proposed rule and then gone forward with the rulemaking process on the record, with a public docket, and the Pentagon's complaints open to scrutiny,” she said.

Group of Chemicals.

As for the new strategy of regulating certain contaminants in groups, EPA first announced its plans to strengthen standards for TCE and PCE in March 2010, an agency spokesman told BNA Feb. 2.

Six of the chemicals are already regulated, but the agency may tighten standards for them. They are benzene; carbon tetrachloride; 1,2-dichloroethane; 1,2-dichloropropane; dichloromethane; and vinyl chloride.

The unregulated carcinogenic VOCs the agency said it may regulate are aniline; benzyl chloride; 1,3-butadiene; 1,1-dichloroethane; nitrobenzene; oxirane methyl; 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP); and urethane, the EPA spokesman said. All 16 chemicals appear on EPA's third Contaminant Candidate List.

By Patricia Ware