Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 4, 2005

217 more reasons to worry about perchlorate

Just when I’d stop thinking regularly about perchlorate – to the point that the word didn’t pop immediately to mind whenever I drove past the former Olin road flare factory on Tennant Avenue in Morgan Hill – along comes another reason to worry. More precisely, there are 217 reasons to worry.

Perchlorate reared its ugly head in an unexpected place – an online article from Wired magazine. I was innocently reading tech news when the headline “Rocket Fuel in Milk, Lettuce” caught my eye.

It turns out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration collected and tested samples of lettuce, bottled water and milk earlier this year. Read the study results yourself online.

To get any South Valley newcomers up to speed, perchlorate is a byproduct of manufacturing fireworks, rocket fuel, road flares and automobile air bags. It was discovered a few years ago in groundwater south of Morgan Hill. Olin has acknowledged that its now-closed road flare factory is the cause of the perchlorate plume snaking its way from Morgan Hill, through San Martin, and toward Gilroy.

Perchlorate interferes with thyroid function. It is particularly worrisome for pregnant women, infants, children, anyone with health problems and especially those with thyroid disorders.

Now it looks like perchlorate, which contaminates the drinking water of more than 15 million Americans in at least 20 states, has made a significant leap into the food chain.

Most parents encourage their children to drink milk, hoping the Vitamin D and calcium it contains will lead to strong bones and teeth.

But now there’s real cause for concern. The FDA took 104 samples of a variety of milk from 15 states. All but three samples – more than 97 percent – had measurable levels of perchlorate.

How much perchlorate was in that nutritious, delicious milk? The highest amount was 11.3 ppb, with a mean level of 5.76 ppb. Got milk? Let’s hope yours doesn’t have perchlorate.

In 25 samples of green leaf lettuce collected in California, Arizona, Texas and New Jersey, researchers batted .1000. Quantifiable amounts of perchlorate were found in every sample. Amounts ranged from 1 to 27.4 ppb. The mean level of perchlorate in the FDA’s green leaf lettuce samples was 10.7 ppb.

If you prefer iceberg lettuce, the news is a little better in at least one respect. Of 38 samples collected in California, Arizona, Texas, New Jersey and Florida, eight samples had levels of perchlorate too low to quantify. On the other hand, the perchlorate levels ranged up to a whopping 71.6 ppb, for a mean of 7.76 ppb in the FDA’s iceberg lettuce samples.

Maybe you’d like a bit of color in your salad. All but two of the FDA’s 25 red leaf lettuce samples collected in Arizona, California and Texas had measurable levels of perchlorate, topping out at an eye-popping 52 ppb, and settling at the highest mean yet, 11.6 ppb.

Love a Caesar salad filled with romaine lettuce? Consider the FDA’s samples, collected in California, Texas, Arizona, Florida and New Jersey, all but two of which had measurable levels of perchlorate. The top perchlorate level of the samples was a stunning 129 ppb, producing a mean level of 11.9 ppb.

In case you’ve lost count, perchlorate was found in 217 of the FDA’s 232 milk and lettuce samples. That’s more than 93 percent of the samples.

Now don’t look so glum, there’s some good news. All but two samples of bottled water, out of 51 the FDA collected all over the country, had no measurable levels of perchlorate.

California has set the “action level” for perchlorate in drinking water at 6 ppb. The federal EPA continues to drag its feet on this issue, insisting that despite decades of study, there isn’t enough information to establish safe levels of perchlorate in drinking water.

The FDA says not to worry. It includes this advice in the text accompanying the study data: “FDA does not recommend at this time that consumers should alter their infants’ and children’s diets and eating habits to avoid exposure to perchlorate.”

I wonder, what levels of perchlorate contaminating the basics of life – vegetables, water, milk – will be too high for the lame-duck Bush Administration and its environmental regulators to ignore?

“The study confirms what we and some other people have been saying for a while – that perchlorate is not only a problem in areas with known water contamination but for anyone who eats food grown in the U.S.” ~ Environmental Working Group’s Bill Walker in Wired magazine.


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