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Rocket Fuel Toxic Found in Lettuce

OAKLAND, California,

January 2, 2003 (ENS) -

Perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel which impairs the thyroid's ability to take up iodide and produce hormones, has contaminated almost 300 drinking water sources and farm wells in California and sources in at least 15 other states. This new information is found in test data and documents obtained by Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental research organization with offices in Oakland and Washington, DC. Contamination has affected the Colorado River from near Las Vegas to the Mexican border.

The river is the primary or sole source of irrigation water for farms in California, Arizona and Nevada that grow the great majority of the lettuce sold in the U.S. during the winter. Eating lettuce or other vegetables grown in fields irrigated by the Colorado River may expose consumers to a larger dose of toxic rocket fuel than is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Test results never before made public, obtained by EWG, show that leafy vegetables grown with contaminated irrigation water take up, store and concentrate potentially harmful levels of perchlorate. Sworn depositions and other courtroom documents show that the giant aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, a major user of perchlorate, knew as early as 1997 that vegetables stored high concentrations of the chemical, but said nothing to the EPA or California state health officials. EWG says that "Lockheed Martin is responsible for polluting dozens of water supplies in the Redlands area of San Bernardino County, California with high levels of perchlorate and other chemicals." The company has made no comment on these allegations. A class action lawsuit has been brought against the company by more than 800 residents of the area, who blame contaminated drinking water for cancer and other health problems.

Farms in the area are not irrigated by the Colorado River, but draw from wells that have been contaminated by perchlorate plumes from now abandoned Lockheed facilities. Lawyers at Engstrom, Lipscomb and Lack in Los Angeles, who represent the Redlands residents suing Lockheed Martin, learned that the company had earlier been in negotiation with Lucky Farms, a San Bernardino grower of lettuce and other vegetables, over contamination of the farm's water supply.

The lawyers subpoenaed all materials from the negotiations, and have discovered that Lockheed was sitting on evidence of vegetables' uptake and concentration of perchlorate. The subpoenaed documents, obtained by EWG from lawyers at Engstrom, Lipscomb and Lack, showed that in late 1997 and early 1998, Lucky Farms conducted a series of tests on its produce to see if they were contaminated with perchlorate. These tests were conducted on four samples of "leafy vegetables" and four samples of some kind of "vegetable matter" which was not identified. Overall, the vegetables were found to have an average of more than 2,600 micrograms of perchlorate per kilogram - thousands of times higher than what the EPA considers to be a safe amount in a liter of water. "We know the water supplies of millions of Californians are contaminated with perchlorate at potentially harmful levels," said Bill Walker, EWG's California director. "But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of untested wells and water systems across the country, and many Americans may be consuming a toxin which is a health threat at very low doses, especially to infants and children." Too much perchlorate can damage the thyroid gland, which controls growth, development and metabolism. At higher levels, perchlorate is known to cause cancer.

Although there is currently no federal drinking water standard for perchlorate, the EPA's proposed "reference dose," the level that the EPA says is safe to consume each day, is two micrograms per day for an adult. "If the perchlorate levels reported here are confirmed by further testing," EWG says, "immediate government action will be needed to reduce perchlorate in lettuce and other vegetables." The EWG is urging the Food and Drug Administration to test lettuce and other vegetables grown with Colorado River water for perchlorate, and that the results of this testing be made public as soon as they are confirmed. In addition, says EWG, any grower affected by perchlorate contamination of their crops "should be fully compensated for any and all economic losses to their farming operations and property values."

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