The EPA’s controversial 2008 decision not to regulate a drinking water contaminant long connected to impaired brain development and decreased learning capability in infants had more to do with the interests of the Bush administration than with scientific findings regarding its safety, according to a report released Tuesday by a congressional watchdog agency, the LA Times reports.
Perchlorate is a toxin in rocket fuel and fireworks, is present in most states’ drinking water, lettuce and milk, and is found in high concentrations near current and former military bases as a byproduct of weapons testing. The E.P.A. currently says it could be contaminating the public wells supplying anywhere from 5 million to 17 million Americans.The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to look into the EPA’s evaluation of the known thyroid-disturbant, and found that the path to the no-regulation decision “used a process and scientific analyses that were atypical, lacked transparency, and limited the agency’s independence in developing and communicating scientific findings.”
Instead of the EPA’s usual process—which begins with creating a work group of “professional staff with relevant expertise from across the agency”—the Agency placed a “less inclusive, small group of high-level officials” in charge of the deliberations.
These high-level members included officials who answered directly to the White House, from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. NASA and the Department of Defense were part of the board as well.
Not included in the work group was the Office of Children’s Health Protection, a bureau essentially created for this purpose, despite the EPA’s conclusion of the risk perchlorate poses to pregnant women and children. The chemical can inhibit iodide uptake, causing increased the risk of neurodevelopmental impairment in fetuses of pregnant women, and contribute to developmental delays and decreased learning capability in infants and children, according to the report.
“Everyone who’s paying attention knows that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson is acutely tuned-in to the political signals coming from the White House – so tuned-in that his conversations with the executive branch have become a form of highly privileged state secret,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope told NBC in 2008.
The GAO report also found significant flaws in the actual testing process. The work group chose to use data from a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report, which was based primarily on the results of a single two-week clinical study which did not include infants or children younger than six years old.
Despite what can be considered the most sensitive subpopulation being entirely excluded, the group’s study asserted that “pregnant women, pregnant women with subclinical hypothyroidism, preterm infants, and newborns would be no more sensitive to perchlorate than nonpregnant adult women and men.”
As it turns out, the group chose to use this set of data instead of data from the EPA’s own, more extensive 2002 study of perchlorate, because it proposed a drinking water reference dose of the chemical that drew “significant attention, including from such federal agencies as DOD, the Department of Energy, and NASA, because of the implications such a level could have on their operations if EPA were to develop a drinking water regulation for perchlorate.”
The EPA received nearly 33,000 comment letters on the October 2008 notice, according to the Agency’s website.
This past February, the Obama administration announced it would reverse the 2008 decision, setting in motion the process to regulate perchlorate and a dozen other drinking water toxins over the next two years. These will be the first regulations on drinking water contaminants to be enacted since 1996.
California, which has long lead the fight for perchlorate regulation, has had its own state laws in effect for the chemical for years. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that handles military construction in 2004, when the Pentagon missed a deadline for sending Congress a report on perchlorate contamination at defense sites. When the report finally turned up with less than half of the requested sites assessed, Sen. Feinstein sent Rumsfeld a letter accusing the DOD of “dragging its feet.”
The GAO report also takes an in-depth look at the structure of the chemical evaluation process. It points out a host of flaws in the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) used to accumulate data, blaming it for delaying regulatory determinations for some unregulated contaminants and severely inverting the Agency’s core priorities.
“Consequently, data availability—not consideration of greatest public health concern—has been the primary driver of EPA’s selection of contaminants for regulatory determinations,” the report reads.
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will asses how to fix the fundamental problems within IRIS this week, after the National Academy of Sciences released a harsh critique of the system, The Hill reports.