ALBUQUERQUE- As a new mother, I've done everything I can to keep my son healthy and increase his chances of becoming a strong, successful individual. I had a natural childbirth with no drugs. He was exclusively breastfed. At 9 months, he now only eats organic fruits, vegetables, grains and meat, and he continues to breastfeed. I braved the mess of cloth diapers, and use only gel-free, fragrance-free, dye-free disposables as an alternative. I've tried to educate myself about all the harmful contaminants he could be exposed to, and do my best to protect him from them.
Yet there is one source of contaminants that I haven't been able to do much about: Our drinking water.
Sure, we have a PuR filter to help filter the water from our tap and I read the water quality reports from my local water authority. But the local water authority is only required to report on contaminants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-and the EPA only regulates a small percentage of the known pollutants found in America's drinking water.
I recently came across an article in the Washington Post that preceeded the EPA's Oct 2008 decision not to regulate perchlorate, a dangerous chemical shown to affect the thyroid and thus impair many hormone-related functions such as fertility, growth, and brain development.
According to Robert Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts professor who specializes in thyroid hormone and brain development and was quoted in the article, "[the EPA has] distorted the science to such an extent that they can justify not regulating" perchlorate. "Infants and children will continue to be damaged, and that damage is significant."
Zoeller said scientific studies have shown that a small reduction in thyroid function in infants can translate into a loss of IQ and an increase in behavioral and perception problems. "It's absolutely irreversible," he said. "Even small changes in thyroid functions early on have impacts on functioning through high school and even into people's 20s."
A reference to those studies in the EPA's proposal was deleted by White House Office of Management and Budget officials, reportedly due in part to pressure from the Pentagon.
The original EPA document also found that bottle-fed infants would be exposed to more than five times the level the National Academy of Sciences deemed safe - 700 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day - if parents mix formula with drinking water containing perchlorate levels of 15 ppb. Breast-fed infants whose mothers are exposed to perchlorate would ingest even higher levels of the chemical, as perchlorate becomes highly concentrated in breastmilk at levels exponentially greater than other means of excretion.
The more I researched perchlorate, the more outraged I became. The city of Albuquerque, where we live, is one of many cities across the country with known detection of perchlorate in the city water. We and millions of other people across the country are exposed to unacceptable levels of perchlorate, which affect our health in a myriad of ways and disproportionately harm infants, children, and women of reproductive age.
What is perchlorate?
According to the American Water Works Association, perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and man-made ion used to form a variety of salts. The primary use of perchlorate today is as an oxidizer in solid rocket fuel and other propellants and to a lesser extent, in fireworks, explosives, and air-bag inflators. It is also used in some municipal waste treatment plants around the country.
Why is perchlorate harmful?
Perchlorate interferes with iodide uptake into the thyroid gland, and the thyroid is a central control point for a variety of hormonal responses. In fetuses, infants, and young children, thyroid hormones are critical for normal growth and development. In adults, the thyroid helps to regulate metabolism and fertility. Iodide deficiency in women (such as that caused by perchlorate exposure) can decrease levels of fertility, increase miscarriage rates, and lead to more serious health risks such as goiter and thyroid cancer. Women with iodide deficiency who are lucky enough to become pregnant have a high risk of birthing babies with developmental problems-including behavioral disorders, delayed development and decreased learning capability.
Nursing women can excrete perchlorate in breastmilk in disproportionately high quantities, resulting in infant consumption of perchlorate at levels that far exceed the recommended limit per body weight. Kirk et al. (2005) analyzed 36 breast milk samples from 18 States (CA, CT, FL, GA, HI, MD, ME, MI, MO, NC, NE, NJ, NM, NY, TX, VA, WA, WV) and found perchlorate concentrations in all samples ranging from 1.4 to 92.2 μg/L. For more specifics on the health effects of perchlorate (per the EPA's highly edited official document) click here.
Where is perchlorate found?
Perchlorate is found in groundwater, surface water, drinking water, and also in our food sources around the country. To find out whether perchlorate has been detected in your community, click here. This list is not exhaustive and it is possible that you may be exposed to perchlorate in your drinking water even if your city is not on the list. Some independent experts estimate that as many as 40 million Americans are affected by perchlorates in their drinking water.
What level of perchlorate consumption is considered "safe"?
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conducted a study and issued a report in 2004 that stated that daily ingestion of up to 0.0007 milligrams per kilogram of body weight will not result in an adverse effect on the health of even the most sensitive populations. This translates to a Drinking Water Equivalent Level of 24.5 ppb-based on an average body weight of 70 kg or 154 pounds. While this is the "official" recommended level, independent studies have demonstrated adverse health effects of perchlorate consumption at levels inferior to the 0.0007 mg/kg of body weight.
The amount of perchlorate ingested by an exclusively breastfed baby will significantly exceed this recommended reference dose.
How are we exposed to perchlorate?
Contaminated drinking water is the most likely way to ingest perchlorate, according to the EPA. Perchlorate has been detected in ground and surface water in 26 states and one territory. While it has often been detected in water supplies in close proximity to sites where solid rocket fuel is manufactured or used, there are also many locations in the United States lacking a clearly defined source. Drinking water contaminated with perchlorate has been found throughout the country, however the highest density of perchlorate detection was found to be in Southern California, west central Texas, along the east coast between New Jersey and Long Island and in Massachusetts. In these communities perchlorate levels have been found to exceed the recent EPA recommendations by as much as 100 to 1000 times.
Because so many of our food sources also contain water or are irrigated with water, perchlorate is also found in lower concentrations in a variety of foods. Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Nov. 2004) and the Environmental Working Group (Apr. 2003) detected perchlorate in samples of lettuce in California. Several other studies also detected perchlorate in milk samples taken from California and Texas.
Water infused with perchlorate is used to irrigate crops throughout California-our nation's largest producer of fresh produce. It is found in high concentrations in leafy green vegetables. Buying "organic" provides no safety from perchlorates as the organic label certification processes only review the direct use of pesticides, not the quality of the water used for irrigation. Perchlorate is also found in meat-in particular grazing animals-who can ingest perchlorate from their own feed irrigated with contaminated water.
What can we do?
When I realized the impact that perchlorate could be having on my son, I was devastated. I've tried so hard to protect him from the myriad of contaminants but by exclusively breastfeeding him it's possible that I've caused more damage than I've spared.
There is no question that perchlorate in groundwater and surface water (the sources of our drinking water) should be monitored, controlled, and ultimately eliminated. At the very least it should be regulated in our drinking water, and ideally it should be eliminated from all water sources as it inevitably makes its way up the food chain due to irrigation.
We can write directly to President Obama to urge him to stop allowing America's mothers and babies to be poisoned-and require the EPA to regulate perchlorate in our water. We can write to our city and state officials urging them to do the same. California and Texas are already moving to regulate perchlorate contamination in drinking water, and other states may follow suit.
Finally, we can all do our part to conserve water. The more water we use, the more we compromise our water quality. Low aquifers mean high concentrations of all types of contaminants, including perchlorates. Vanishing aquifers mean that cities and states must find new sources of drinking water-replacing high-quality underground sources with water from rivers or lakes. America's rivers and lakes are almost universally contaminated with all sorts of pollutants that accumulate as water runs over the ground and absorbs perchlorates, pesticides, chemicals and even nuclear waste-most of which are not regulated by the EPA and sent straight to our taps.
We can't continue to pander to corporate interests at the expense of our nation's health, or continue consuming water as if it were an endless resource. Perchlorate is the most recent harmful contaminant we're finding in our water but if we continue in this direction, tomorrow will certainly reveal others.
- For more tips on how to advocate for perchlorate regulation, click here.
- Additional sources of information about perchlorate:
American Water Works Association
Elizabeth Beachy is co-founder and co-owner of Nuprana.com, a socially-conscious family business dedicated to water conservation.