EDF Health

EPA distorts the scientific evidence and fails to protect kids’ brains in its proposed limit for perchlorate in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 56 parts per billion (ppb) for perchlorate in drinking water – more than three times less protective than an interim health advisory level set in 2008. To justify this increase, EPA turned its back on scientific evidence showing that this potent neurotoxin undermines childrens’ motor development and control and can increase their anxiety and depression. The agency’s reasoning is inconsistent with its own analysis published in a draft report in late 2017 and the findings of a peer review panel it convened last year to review that report.

If the agency had used the most protective scientific study and the most sensitive endpoint evaluated in the proposed rule, the MCL would likely be 4 ppb – more than three times more protective than the current health advisory. As a result, the agency fails to adequately protect children from a lifetime of harm. With this MCL, EPA is allowing pregnant women to be exposed to perchlorate in the first trimester of pregnancy at levels that pose much greater risk of impaired neurodevelopment in their children.

The proposed MCL – and how the agency reached it – was both a disappointment and a surprise to us. In late 2017, we applauded the agency’s scientists for developing an innovative model connecting a mother’s perchlorate exposure in the first trimester to fetal harm. We were not alone – in early 2018, EPA’s peer review panel congratulated the agency’s scientists on their analysis. We also complimented EPA’s population-based approach to developing an MCL by estimating the percent of pregnant women, and their children, with borderline thyroid dysfunction due to low iodine intake.

So how did EPA abruptly change course and estimate an MCL less protective than the current health advisory? By altering its analysis in three subtle but significant ways:

  1. Rejecting five epidemiology studies showing harm at even lower exposure levels in favor of one IQ study by Korevaar et al. in 2016.
  2. Choosing an MCL that allows an IQ loss of 2 points even though the study showed a 1 point loss was statistically significant.
  3. Dismissing an alternative, population-based method that EPA proposed in 2017 that reinforces the need for a more protective standard.

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EPA’s safety standard for perchlorate in water should prioritize kids’ health

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon propose a drinking water standard for perchlorate. The decision – due by the end of May per a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)— will end a nearly decade-long process to regulate the chemical that has been shown to harm children’s brain development.

In making its decision, EPA must propose a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) “at the level at which no known or anticipated adverse effects on the health of persons occur and which allows an adequate margin of safety.”[1] It must also set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) as close to the MCLG as feasible using the best available treatment technology and taking cost into consideration.

To guide that decision, EPA’s scientists developed a sophisticated model that considers the impact of perchlorate on the development of the fetal brain in the first trimester when the fetus is particularly vulnerable to the chemical’s disruption of the proper function of the maternal thyroid gland. As discussed more below, the model was embraced by an expert panel of independent scientists through a transparent, public process that included public comments and public meetings.

In April, a consulting firm published a study critiquing EPA’s model. The authors acknowledged the model as a valuable research tool but did not think it is sufficient to use in regulatory decision-making due to uncertainties. Therefore, the authors concluded that EPA should discard the peer-reviewed model and rely on a 14-year old calculation of a “safe dose” that does not consider the latest scientific evidence and has even greater uncertainties. They didn’t offer other options such as using uncertainty factors to address their concerns about the model’s estimated values.

Given the importance of the issue and the risk to children’s brain development, we want to explain EPA’s model, the process the agency used to develop it, and the study raising doubt about the model.

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FDA is dragging its feet while children continue to be exposed to perchlorate in food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

It has been more than 18 months since EDF and other advocates challenged the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) May 2017 decision to continue allowing perchlorate in dry food plastic packaging and food handling equipment.

While Congress gives FDA 180 days to act on food additive petitions, FDA must act “as soon as possible” on a challenge such as ours. However, the agency has yet to complete a review of its May 2017 decision in light of our concerns and evaluate whether to either stand by it, or reverse it. We did not expect FDA would take three times longer to review a decision already made, especially since our objection is largely based on the agency’s own data.

In the meantime, perchlorate in food continues to threaten children’s brains. The chemical, a component of rocket fuel, disrupts the thyroid gland’s normal function and reduces production of the thyroid hormone needed for healthy fetal and child brain development. FDA’s own studies show increased levels of perchlorate in foods such as baby food dry cereal, indicating the chemical’s intentional use in dry food packaging is the likely source of increased exposure for young children.

How FDA got it wrong

In FDA’s May 2017 decision to continue allowing intentional use of perchlorate in contact with dry food, the agency largely relied on flawed science to assess dietary exposure. Its three central errors were:

  1. Ignoring its own data showing significantly increased exposure for children;
  2. Woefully underestimating exposure based on a flawed migration test; and
  3. Unrealistically assuming that perchlorate-laden plastic would only contact food once.

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American Academy of Pediatrics calls for “urgently needed reforms” to fix broken food additive regulatory system

Tom Neltner, J.D. is Chemicals Policy Director

Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a “Food Additives and Child Health” policy statement calling for “urgently needed reforms to the current regulatory process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives.” The policy applies to chemicals deliberately added to food or to food packaging or food processing equipment that get into food. These substances are used to flavor, color, preserve, package, process and store our food, but many never appear among the list of ingredients. AAP’s statement calls specifically for the following:

  • “Greatly strengthening or replacing the GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] determination process;
  • Updating the scientific foundation of the FDA’s safety assessment program;
  • Retesting all previously approved chemicals; and
  • Labeling direct additives with limited or no toxicity data.”

EDF applauds AAP’s policy statement and its decision to add its influential voice to the rising call for reform of the process by which FDA and food manufacturers decide additives are safe. AAP, a professional society representing 67,000 pediatricians, develops policy statements regarding federal, state, and community policies that affect children through an extensive, deliberative process that draws on tremendous scientific expertise. As with past policies, such as those concerning lead toxicity and fruit juice consumption, this statement on chemicals in food presents a well-reasoned assessment of the problem and clear recommendations for reform.

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EPA sets interim limits on hypochlorite bleach to reduce degradation to perchlorate

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

On May 1, 2018, Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) made an interim pesticide registration decision[1] for hypochlorite bleach used to disinfect drinking water. The office decided to require the “Precautionary Statements” section of the bleach’s pesticide label to include advisory best management practices to minimize the formation of chlorate and perchlorate. The new label will state:

“The following practices help to minimize degradant formation in drinking water disinfection:

  • It is recommended to minimize storage time.
  • It is recommended that the pH solution be in the range of 11-13.
  • It is recommended to minimize sunlight exposure by storing in opaque containers and / or in a covered area. Solutions should be stored at lower temperatures. Every 5º C reduction in storage temperature will reduce degradant formation by a factor of two.
  • Dilution significantly reduces degradant formation. For products with higher concentrations, it is recommended to dilute hypochlorite solutions with cool, softened water upon delivery, if practical for the application.”

EDF submitted comments in November 2017 supporting OPP’s proposed label changes and requesting specific changes to the language including making the advice to users mandatory. We also asked the agency to extend the changes to hypochlorite bleach used to treat produce and to disinfect food handling equipment.

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We are what we eat: New paper outlines how the regulatory gaps in the US threaten our health

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice-President for Health.

In a new paper published in PLoS Biology today, Maricel Maffini, Tom Neltner and I detail the regulatory gaps in how the US manages chemicals in food. We explore how failures in our current regulatory system put the public’s health at risk as exemplified in the case of perchlorate, a chemical allowed in food and a well-known endocrine disrupting compound. Perchlorate’s ability to disrupt normal functioning of the thyroid means that even low levels of exposure, especially in those with inadequate iodine intake, can adversely impact the developing brains of infants and children. It is not a chemical that should be in the food of pregnant women, infants and children. And yet it is, and the levels children consume have increased in recent years.

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