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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tainted H2O

Air Date: Week of

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Perchlorate, a compound used in rocket fuel, is turning up in many states’ drinking water. Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC reports perchlorate is found at rocket or missile production sites, and it's linked to thyroid disease.


CURWOOD: Perchlorate, a chemical used as rocket fuel, is now being detected in the drinking water in as many as 22 states, from New York to California. Perchlorate has been found in the Colorado River, and in California alone hundreds of wells have also been corrupted.

Perchlorate tends to target the thyroid gland in humans and is linked to thyroid disease. Babies are especially vulnerable because the thyroid is critical to the developing brain. As more data about this contamination emerges, thousands of people are suing defense contractors and water suppliers for damages from diseases they say are linked to perchlorate.

From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Ilsa Setziol reports.

SETZIOL: At the Metropolitan Water District’s laboratory in Eastern Los Angeles County, a long chemical equation fills a white board. Hundreds of small vials with water sit atop rows of lab equipment. The district’s Mick Stewart stops in front of one of the humming machines.

STEWART: Right now we are in the inorganic chemistry unit. This particular instrument we’re looking at right here is the ion chromatograph. And we use this to detect for the presence of perchlorate.

SETZIOL: Perchlorate is used in rocket fuel, munitions and fireworks. It’s turned up in nearly 300 wells across California alone. It is likely perchlorate has been mingling with the state’s water supply since the government and the defense industry began manufacturing it in the 1940s. But, says Mick Stewart, it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that water agencies were able to detect perchlorate at the low levels found in many drinking water wells.

STEWART: So, at that time we decided that as they were detecting perchlorate in some of the contaminated groundwater sites throughout California, as a matter of prudent course of action, we would do some monitoring of our source waters. Not expecting to find anything, but we thought we would do that. We took samples in our Colorado River water system and we found perchlorate. We were quite surprised to do that.

SETZIOL: Finding perchlorate in the Colorado River is significant because the river is a principal source of drinking water for 20 million people across the Southwestern United States. Water officials traced the perchlorate’s path back more than 400 miles up the Colorado River to giant Lake Mead in Nevada and past that to a desert riverbed called the Las Vegas Wash.

Todd Croft, with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, stands in the wash looking at a pump and the top of an underground dam.

CROFT: This water on the left behind the dam is the water that’s emerged as groundwater that’s now coming up as a seep or a spring, and it is containing perchlorate.

SETZIOL: One of the largest perchlorate contaminated sites is just a few miles from here. For years, the U.S. Navy and, then, Kerr McGee dumped thousands of pounds of perchlorate waste per day outside the rocket fuel plant in Henderson, Nevada.

CROFT: So, the disposal of waste was commonly done through unlined ditches and unlined ponds. There’s also, though, in the production process, there was certainly some leakage out of the containers that they were making this in and out of their piping and their pumping systems.

SETZIOL: Nevada officials are now overseeing an extensive cleanup by Kerr McGee. Croft says the basic strategy is to contain the plume of contaminated water that is still leeching as much as 900 pounds of perchlorate a day into the riverbed and then treat it. Croft expects to stop most of the influx within two years. But because so much contamination has already reached Lake Mead, federal environmental officials think it could be more than a decade before the Colorado River is clean again.

Back in California the Metropolitan Water District’s Mick Stewart says in the meantime dilution is helping.

STEWART: We blend state project water and Colorado River water, and because of that blend the level of perchlorate is even lower than when it first comes into our system.

SETZIOL: Stewart says southern California has been able to lower the amount to four parts per billion or less. But that’s still four times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft proposal, which is one part per billion.

Some environmentalists say the proposed regulation doesn’t do enough to protect people. Renee Sharp is an analyst for the Environmental Working Group, which has been working on the issue of perchlorate.

SHARP: Obviously, it’s a tricky issue because we don’t have some definitive study, and rarely do you really ever do. But there have been two epidemiological studies done that suggest that from one to nine parts per billion is having an actual effect on infant thyroid hormones. So, just looking at that information, we think that really the level needs to be more like 0.1 parts per billion to be on the safe side.

SETZIOL: California is studying possible correlations between thyroid illness and perchlorate in water. And the EPA wants to test drinking water nationwide since the compound seems to show up just about anywhere rockets, missiles or even fireworks were produced. The Pentagon objects to such testing and is seeking an exemption from laws requiring cleanup of explosives. Defense firms say concentrations of perchlorate 200 times higher than the EPA proposal are safe in drinking water.

Americans will probably be hearing more about this recently recognized legacy of the Cold War and the nation’s space program.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ilsa Setziol.



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