EPA decides not to limit perchlorate in drinking water


WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Thursday that it would support a Trump-era decision not to impose limits on perchlorate, a contaminant linked to brain damage in babies, in drinking water.

The EPA statement shocked public health advocates, who in 2020 denounced the Trump administration for choosing not to regulate perchlorate. The chemical is an ingredient in rocket fuel, ammunition and explosives. Exposure can impair fetal and child development and cause a significant drop in IQ in newborns.

The Trump administration found that perchlorate did not meet regulatory standards because it appeared in drinking water at a frequency and level that did not “raise public health concerns.” Activists at the time accused the EPA of ignoring science.

The agency reviewed the decision after President Biden took office and approved it on Thursday, saying it was “backed by the best peer-reviewed science.”

The EPA said it would take other actions, such as establishing new monitoring tools and doing more to clean up contaminated sites, “to ensure public health is not affected by perchlorate in drinking water.”

In a statement, the agency said it “continues to consider new information about the health effects and occurrence of perchlorate.” The EPA said its decision would not affect any state standards for the chemical. For example, California and Massachusetts set their own limits for perchlorate in drinking water.

Those measures are not enough, said Erik D. Olson, senior strategy director for health at the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We are very disappointed that it is unscientific and illegal to not regulate this contaminant in the drinking water of millions of people,” he said. “They’re not following the best science.”

Perchlorate can occur naturally, but high concentrations have been found in at least 26 states, often near military installations, where it is used as an additive in rocket fuel to make propellants more reliable. By interfering with the thyroid’s iodine uptake, perchlorate blocks the production of hormones that are critical to fetal, infant and child development, research shows.

Bill Romanelli, a spokesman for the Alliance’s Perchlorate Information Agency, which is funded by aerospace contractors Aerojet Rocketdyne, American Pacific and Lockheed Martin, praised the Biden administration.

“Today’s EPA decision that perchlorate does not warrant additional federal regulation is based on the best scientific information available to ensure the protection of public health and the environment, and to ensure access to clean water,” Mr Romanelli wrote in a statement.

He called perchlorate “one of the most well-studied environmental chemicals ever evaluated by the EPA.” Peer-reviewed studies have found that neither the frequency nor the levels of the chemical in public water systems is cause for concern, he said.

The fight over perchlorate dates back to the early 2000s, when the administration of President George W. Bush decided not to regulate it.

The Obama administration reversed that decision, releasing a finding in 2011 that perchlorate in drinking water posed a serious health risk to as many as 16 million people in the United States. It issued a recommendation to states that 15 micrograms per liter is the maximum concentration of perchlorate in water that should be consumed by the most sensitive people, such as pregnant women.

But the Defense Department and military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman took aggressive action to prevent control, and the fighting continued.

The Trump administration reversed Obama’s decision in 2020 and also overturned health findings, saying it was “not in the public interest” to regulate pollutants.

Environmental groups sued the EPA over the decision not to regulate, but suspended their lawsuit after President Biden takes office in 2021.

The American Academy of Pediatrics told the agency that perchlorate can cause a significant drop in IQ in newborns and urged “as strong as possible” limits on pollutants, but declined to comment on Thursday.

Mr. Olson said the lawsuit against the EPA will now be reopened with the aim of forcing the agency to impose standards on perchlorate.

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