WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Thursday it would uphold a Trump-era decision of not imposing limits on drinking water for perchlorate, a contaminant that has been linked to brain damage in infants.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement shocked public health advocates, who in 2020 denounced the Trump administration for choosing not to regulate perchlorate. The chemical is a component of rocket fuel, ammunition and explosives. Exposure can harm development in fetuses and children and result in a measurable reduction in IQ in newborns.
The Trump administration had determined that perchlorate did not meet the criteria for regulation because it did not appear in drinking water “at a frequency and at a level of concern to public health.” Activists at the time accused the EPA of disregarding science.
After President Biden took office, the agency launched a review of the decision and endorsed it Thursday, saying it was “backed by the best available peer-reviewed science.”
The EPA said it will take other actions, such as establishing new monitoring tools and more cleaning up of contaminated sites “to ensure public health is protected from perchlorate in drinking water.”
In a statement, the agency said it “will continue to consider new information about the health effects and occurrence of perchlorate.” The EPA said its decision does not affect state standards for the chemical. For example, California and Massachusetts have set their own limits for perchlorate in drinking water.
Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said these measures are not enough.
“We are very disappointed and believe it is unscientific and unlawful not to regulate this pollutant that is in the drinking water of millions of people,” he said. “They don’t follow the best science.”
Perchlorate can occur naturally, but high concentrations have been found in at least 26 states, often near military installations, where it was used as an additive in rocket fuel to make propellants more reliable. Research has shown that by interfering with the thyroid’s ability to absorb iodine, perchlorate can inhibit the production of hormones essential for the development of fetuses, infants and children.
Bill Romanelli, a spokesman for the Perchlorate Information Bureau, a coalition funded by aerospace companies including Aerojet Rocketdyne, American Pacific Corporation and Lockheed Martin, applauded the Biden administration.
“Today’s decision by the EPA that perchlorate does not merit additional federal regulation is based on the best scientific information available, protects public health and the environment, and ensures access to safe water,” Mr. Romanelli wrote in a statement.
He called perchlorate “one of the most studied environmental chemicals the EPA has ever evaluated.” He said peer-reviewed studies have found that the chemical is not occurring in public water systems at a frequency or level to cause concern.
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The fight over perchlorate dates back to the early 2000s when President George W. Bush’s administration decided not to regulate it.
The Obama administration reversed that decision and in 2011 determined that perchlorate in drinking water posed a serious health risk to as many as 16 million people in the United States. It issued a recommendation that 15 micrograms per liter is the highest concentration of perchlorate in water that the most sensitive populations, such as pregnant women, should be consuming.
But the Department of Defense and military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman made aggressive efforts to block the controls, and the fight dragged on.
The Trump administration in 2020 reversed the Obama decision and also reversed the health determination, saying it was “not in the public interest” to regulate the pollutant.
Environmental groups sued the EPA over the decision not to regulate, but stayed their lawsuit after President Biden’s inauguration in 2021.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which told the agency that perchlorate can significantly lower IQs in newborns and urged “highest possible” limits for the contamination, declined to comment Thursday.
Mr. Olson said litigation against the EPA is now resuming with the aim of forcing the agency to introduce standards for perchlorate.