Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

Boston Globe
25 May 2003

Chemical in rocket fuel spurs public health debate

By Bobby Caina Calvan

RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. -- A year after moving here in 1970, Doris Voetsch became so sluggish she had to will herself out of bed each morning. Doctors diagnosed her with a thyroid ailment. Years later, they found malignant lumps in her breast, and then they removed a noncancerous brain tumor.

In 1979, one of her daughters began experiencing thyroid problems, and another daughter soon developed a similar condition. Her husband, Greg, had his cancerous thyroid gland removed, and a grandson, now 18, was born with severe learning disabilities that the Voetsches struggled to explain.

When waste from a nearby missile factory began receiving heightened scrutiny from state and federal regulators, the Voetsches started to wonder whether their woes were linked to perchlorate, an ingredient found in rocket fuel that may stunt brain development in newborns and lead to thyroid cancer.

Perchlorate is at the center of a dispute between environmentalists and the defense industry, which remains skeptical about the risk the chemical poses to public health.

''I don't care what anybody says. I'm convinced that we drank ourselves to bad health here,'' said Greg Voetsch, a 69-year-old retired landscaper. ''Everybody was drinking this stuff.''

Beginning in the 1950s, Aerojet, a defense contractor, discarded rocket fuel and other chemicals in unlined pits and trenches at its Rancho Cordova weapons plant, 15 miles northeast of Sacramento. The resulting toxic sludge -- byproducts of Cold War weapons such as the Minuteman, Trident, and Polaris missiles -- seeped into the groundwater that flows into the faucets of nearby homes.

Environmentalists are pressing for immediate regulation and cleanup of sites contaminated by perchlorate. Not only is it already in the drinking water of millions of people in California and elsewhere, they warn, but perchlorate could also affect millions more who buy fruits and vegetables from farms irrigated with contaminated water.

And while regulators debate the scientific research on perchlorate, increasing numbers of communities across the country are discovering contamination in their own backyards.

''Over the past few years, California realized how widespread the problem is. The rest of the country is now only waking up'' to the problem, said Bill Walker, the California director of the Environmental Working Group, which has been advocating for state and federal regulations.

In all, 43 states have had facilities that used the chemical to manufacture rocket boosters, road flares, fireworks, automobile air bags, and other products. The military and its weapons contractors account for 90 percent of the perchlorate used in this country.

At least 25 states, including Massachusetts, have some perchlorate contamination in surface water and groundwater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But the EPA is years away from setting a water-quality standard for perchlorate -- hindered in part, environmentalists contend, by the Defense Department's opposition to a standard that could result in billions of dollars in cleanups.

While the military is performing some cleanup -- including EPA-mandated groundwater treatment at the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Bourne because of perchlorate and other toxins -- the Pentagon is also seeking legislation that would exempt it from many environmental rules. The Pentagon said current environmental regulations interfere with military readiness, but environmentalists said the military is looking for a way out of expensive environmental cleanup.

''There has never been any intent to change in any way through this legislation the Department of Defense's obligation to clean up the military lands under its control,'' the Pentagon said in a written statement. ''Until a federal or state cleanup standard is determined, the department will continue to work directly with state and local officials on the best strategies to safeguard public water supplies.''

The EPA doesn't expect to set a standard until 2007. Without one, the agency does not have an enforceable threshold to order cleanups. For now, the agency is using a ''reference dose'' of one part per billion, which it believes is a safe concentration in drinking water. The Department of Defense, citing a 2002 study funded by the defense industry, favors a standard of 200 parts per billion.

To help settle the issue, the EPA in March sent its draft findings to the National Academy of Sciences for review. The evaluation is expected to take several months. ''When we have a particularly controversial chemical, that wouldn't be an entirely unreasonable step,'' said Kevin Mayer, the EPA's national perchlorate coordinator. ''We want to get the science right.''

EPA spokesman Mark Merchant acknowledged that ''there is a lot of political jockeying in Washington between the military and the EPA'' about perchlorate standards in drinking water.

Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, introduced a bill in March that would force the EPA to establish a perchlorate standard by July 2004. A related Boxer ''right-to-know'' bill introduced last month would catalog all facilities that have handled large amounts of perchlorate since 1950 and would establish a Perchlorate Cleanup and Pollution Prevention Fund, partly supported by fines levied against polluters. Supporters of both bills concede it is unlikely either will become law in this Congress.

Similar proposals may fare better in the California Legislature, where a right-to-know bill has also been introduced. In January, California is expected to be among the first to establish an enforceable perchlorate standard. The state is proposing a concentration level of between two and six parts per billion.

At least 84 of the state's water systems have detected perchlorate in varying levels. San Bernardino County, in Southern California, found perchlorate levels in some wells as high as 820 parts per billion. Dozens of wells across the state have been shut down because of high levels of perchlorate.Waste from a perchlorate manufacturing plant near Hoover Dam in Nevada continues to flow into Lake Mead and the lower Colorado River, the source of drinking water for more than 15 million people in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. That water is also used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland in California's Imperial Valley. High concentrations of perchlorate were found in lettuce sold in supermarkets nationwide, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group. The effects of perchlorate on people have been known for at least a half-century. Perchlorate blocks the ability of the thyroid gland to absorb iodide, a necessary nutrient for production of hormones the body uses to stimulate physical and mental activity.

Studies suggest that changes in the levels of thyroid hormones could result in tumors. In fetuses and newborns, the absence of these hormones could harm brain development and lead to mental retardation, attention-deficit syndrome, and impaired vision, hearing, and speech. At least two lawsuits have been filed in California by hundreds of people who blame perchlorate for their health ailments. Both lawsuits center on contamination from weapon facilities, one operated by Lockheed Martin in Redlands, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and the other by Aerojet in Rancho Cordova. Aerojet is working to contain a wide underground plume of the chemical that has shuttered a dozen wells used for drinking water, some with perchlorate concentrations as high as 400 parts per billion. Aerojet has spent nearly $35 million on perchlorate cleanup -- and another $150 million for removal of other chemicals associated with a Superfund cleanup program ordered at its Rancho Cordova site 20 years ago.

Since 1953, Aerojet has been producing weaponry for the Defense Department in Rancho Cordova, employing as many as 22,000 employees at the height of the Cold War.

''At the time, we thought we were doing the right thing,'' said Linda Cutler, a spokeswoman for GenCorp, Aerojet's parent company. ''There was never any intention on Aerojet's part to pollute the water.''

 
   
   

 

 

 

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