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Rocket Fuel Contaminates Lettuce and Milk

Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Nov. 29, 2004

CONTACT: Bill Walker or Renee Sharp, EWG, (510) 444-0973

Federal Tests Confirm Nationwide Rocket Fuel Contamination of Milk, Lettuce
WASHINGTON — Federal investigators have found a toxic rocket fuel chemical in almost all of more than 200 samples of lettuce and milk collected nationwide, in concentrations well above the level considered safe in drinking water by the U.S. EPA and Massachusetts health officials.

The federal tests, completed in August and posted online this week, confirm previous findings by the Environmental Working Group, university researchers and California journalists, but are the first to document nationwide contamination of food. The results provide startling new evidence that perchlorate, the explosive component of solid rocket fuel, is moving from the hundreds of places where it is known to contaminate water supplies into the nation's food supply.

"With these results, it's time for health officials, perchlorate polluters and food producers to stop stalling by saying we need more studies," said Renee Sharp, an EWG senior analyst. "Rocket fuel is in our water, in vegetables, in milk. How much more evidence do we need to take action?"

According to the EPA's preliminary risk assessment, currently under review by the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to the chemical should not exceed 1 part per billion (ppb) in drinking water — the same level adopted by Massachusetts. Health officials in California have set a preliminary safety standard of 6 ppb.

Perchlorate can affect the thyroid gland's ability to make essential hormones. For fetuses, infants and children, disruptions in thyroid hormone levels can cause lowered IQ, mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech, and motor skill deficits.

All three jurisdictions concluded that perchlorate exposure should be limited to a few parts per billion, but based on growing evidence showing harm at very small doses, EWG argues that a drinking water standard should be no more than one-tenth EPA's recommended level.

Previous studies have shown that the rocket fuel chemical, leaking from hundreds of military bases and defense contractors' facilities, concentrates in lettuce grown with contaminated irrigation water. When contaminated water is used to grow alfalfa, cattle feeding on the hay take in the chemical and pass it on in their milk.

In the new studies, the Food and Drug Administration reported finding perchlorate in 217 of 232 samples of milk and lettuce in 15 states.

FDA tested 104 samples of low-fat and whole milk, mostly bought in retail supermarkets in Arizona, California, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington state. The average concentration of the rocket fuel chemical was 5.76 ppb. More than 38 percent of the samples exceeded 6 ppb.

The FDA also tested 128 samples of green and red leaf lettuce, iceberg and romaine from growers and packing sheds in California, Arizona, Florida, Texas and New Jersey. The average concentration of perchlorate was 10.49 ppb. Almost 60 percent of the samples exceeded 6 ppb.

The highest concentration, an average of 11.9 ppb, was found in 25 samples of romaine lettuce. Red leaf lettuce averaged 11.7 ppb, green leaf 10.7 ppb and iceberg 7.76 ppb.

The FDA initiated its sampling program after EWG reported in April 2003 results of tests on winter-grown lettuce from California's Imperial Valley, which is irrigated by the perchlorate-contaminated Colorado River. EWG estimated that, just by eating lettuce, 1.6 million American women of childbearing age are exposed daily during the winter months to more perchlorate than the EPA's recommended safe dose.

In July 2004, EWG reported that its tests by an independent laboratory and unreleased tests by California agriculture officials found the rocket fuel chemical in 45 out of 46 samples of milk from around the state. A computer-assisted analysis of federal dietary data showed that by drinking milk contaminated with the levels of perchlorate found in the two studies, half of all children 1 to 5 would exceed EPA's provisional daily safe dose just by drinking milk, and more than a third would get twice that dose.

Related Links:
FDA's New Studies
http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/clo4data.html#table1

EWG's "Suspect Salads" report
http://www.ewg.org/reports/suspectsalads/

EWG's "Rocket Fuel Contamination in California Milk" report
http://www.ewg.org/reports/rocketmilk/