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Kids and Rocket Fuel

Sometime this month, EPA is expected to reach a final determination on regulating perchlorate in Americans’ drinking water. Every indication is that the agency will conclude, despite ample advice to the contrary, that there’s no need for a national standard for the chemical – a component of rocket fuel and munitions. That, even though, by EPA’s own account, millions of Americans are exposed to perchlorate at concentrations that could have a negative impact on our health.


(For some background on why perchlorate isn’t something you want in your water, and particularly in your kids’ drinking water, check out Shana Jones’s post on this blog from October 24.)


Deciding whether a national drinking water regulation “presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction” is a decision that, by law, depends solely on the judgment of the EPA Administrator. In this instance, Administrator Stephen Johnson’s apparent decision not to regulate puts him on a bit of an island at the agency. EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), established by Congress to provide independent technical advice and peer review support to the Administrator, is urging Johnson to slow down his rush to get this policy published. The SAB is taking the conservative and principled stance that a final decision should be postponed until the Agency’s peer reviewers have had time to critique the new pharmacokinetic model used to justify the decision not to regulate.


Meanwhile, EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC) is going a step further – demanding in no uncertain terms that Johnson reverse his preliminary determination and decide instead to adopt a national standard. In support of their argument, CHPAC notes that the pharmacokinetic model on which Johnson relies “has been validated for adult humans and rat pups, but it has not been validated in infants and children.” They frame Johnson’s decision this way:

This decision does not recognize the science which supports the exquisite sensitivity of the developing brain to even small drops in thyroid hormone levels and the fact that neonates have much diminished stores of thyroid hormones relative to adults. The Agency must ensure that this life stage is adequately protected.

As CPR’s Rena Steinzor recently wrote in this space, one of the Executive Orders that CPR suggested President-elect Obama amend early in his term is E.O. 13045, Protection of Children From Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks. The report offers several recommendations for improving E.O. 13045, but the first is the most pertinent here: setting an affirmative agenda, with deadlines, for new actions to protect children from exposure to a number of chemicals, including perchlorate. Here are the details:

The revised Order should identify each of the agencies and departments responsible for protecting children from harmful exposure to … perchlorate. The Order should require each of these agencies and departments to issue a public report to the President within six months after the Order’s issuance. These reports should (1) describe what the reporting agency or department knows about these threats to children and the nature and scope of their exposure, (2) explain why the reporting agency or department has not yet taken action to eliminate such exposures, and (3) establish a timetable no longer than 18 months after issuance of the report for taking action to eliminate these exposures.

Complying with the amended E.O. 13045 should be rather simple for EPA. As the CHPAC letter explains, EPA already has all of the data showing that a national drinking water standard for perchlorate is appropriate and necessary. All we need is an EPA Administrator willing to exercise her/his power under the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect our kids. With luck, one is on the way.  

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