State Water Resources Control Board Considers New Perchlorate Detection Limit for Purposes of Reporting

California’s Division of Drinking Water of the State Water Resources Control Board wishes to change the Detection Limits for Purposes of Reporting (DLRs) for perchlorate from .004 (4 ?g/l ) to 0.002 (2 ?g/l) .

Here is their announcement:

The Division of Drinking Water (DDW), at a July 5, 2017 public hearing, presented to the State Water Board its findings and recommendations related to DDW’s review of the perchlorate maximum contaminant level (MCL). DDW’s recommendations (see the Perchlorate Review Public Document) were to first establish a lower detection limit for purposes of reporting (DLR) to gather additional occurrence data, and then revise the MCL, if the new data support development of a new standard.

The State Water Board approved DDW’s proposal to investigate, develop, and propose revisions to the perchlorate DLR (see Resolution 2017-0041). DDW is proposing to lower the DLR for perchlorate.  Information on the current status of the regulation can be found on the perchlorate regulation webpage.

Further on they note: The current DLR of 4 ?g/l limits DDW’s ability to determine perchlorate in wells at lower concentrations.

Below is my rebuttal to their desire to lower the DLRs for perchlorate from 4 ?g/l to 2 ?g/l.

Division of Drinking Water

State Water Resources Control Board

1001 I Street, 17th Floor

Sacramento, CA   95814

Re: Perchlorate SBDDW-20-001

It’s clear to me the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) cares very much about providing clean drinking water to the most vulnerable consumers of water, children.

It is also mandated to do so by California Water Code Section 106.3(a) which states:

It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.

Section 106.3(b) then says all state agencies are to use this mandate where other state policies are to be considered.

(b) All relevant state agencies, including the department, the state board, and the State Department of Public Health, shall consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.

(c) This section does not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b).

(d) This section shall not apply to water supplies for new development.

(e) The implementation of this section shall not infringe on the rights or responsibilities of any public water system.

In preparing the proposed regulations, the SWRCB determined the proposed regulations are consistent with this statewide policy. Even though the proposed regulations may result in increased costs to those that are served by PWS (public water systems), it is the SWRCB’s decision that potential cost is outweighed by the benefits of knowing the potential human exposure to perchlorate in drinking water supplies and whether treatment may be needed, and in having an adequate data set to evaluate the technological and economic feasibility of lowering the perchlorate MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level).

As a water master for a tiny rural water company that serves less than 50 households, I too want to provide safe, clean drinking water to my customers, who, are also my friends and neighbors. Clean drinking water is my job and my passion. And, in addition to providing safe drinking water, I am required, by law, to assure that it is as affordable as I can make it. My friends and neighbors pay the highest rates for water in our county, in large part because regulations do not scale down well. So, our key questions for every test, and every tests MCL, ought to be “Is this test necessary, at what dose does this become a poison, and is this an appropriate level?”

The SWRCB information page states that “Perchlorate and its salts are used in solid propellant for rockets, missiles, and fireworks, and elsewhere (e.g., production of matches, flares, pyrotechnics, ordnance, and explosives).”  The information ominously adds, “Their use can lead to releases of perchlorate into the environment.”

Perhaps it was meant to simplify, but the information is incomplete. It neglects to mention that perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment, and, in certain desert areas, in concentrations higher than those quoted as being found in California.

Perchlorate is also a byproduct of water treatment disinfection with sodium hypochlorite.

SWRCB’s information page does note that “Perchlorate’s interference with iodide uptake by the thyroid gland can decrease production of thyroid hormone, which is needed for prenatal and postnatal growth and development, as well as for normal metabolism and mental function in the adult.” It is exactly for this reason why perchlorate was used to treat hyperthyroidism due to Graves disease and to treat thyroid gland disorders resulting from the accumulation of excess iodine. SWRCB neglects to point out the high dosages needed for these affects. As the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) pointed out, “Clinical use of perchlorate in treating disease involves doses up to 400 milligrams on a daily basis, a level which is thousands of times greater than potential environmental exposures.”

It is this disregard of even the most basic toxicology that is disturbing.

In early 2007, 28-year-old Jennifer Strange, a mother of 3, was found dead Friday in her suburban Rancho Cordova home hours after taking part in the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest in which KDND 107.9 promised a Nintendo Wii video game system to the person who could drink the most water without urinating. The coroner’s autopsy determined that Ms. Strange had died of water intoxication after drinking nearly two gallons of water. Water intoxication is also known as water poisoning, hyperhydration, overhydration, or water toxemia.

Water is considered non-toxic.

Every compound no matter how dangerous, has a level at which it is benign; and every compound, no matter how benign, has a level at which it is toxic. Or as Paracelsus (1493-1541) put it, “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.”

Dose determines risk. In a peer-reviewed paper on perchlorate, the ACSH emphasized, “it is imperative that this cornerstone principle of toxicology be included in any assessment of perchlorate. Mere detection of a chemical in the environment cannot be equated with increased risk, but must be evaluated in terms of the hazard, dose-response, and human exposure, all steps in the characterization of health risk.” This, the SWRCB has neglected to do. It relies on the new technology to detect lower perchlorate levels without justifying the need using the above criteria.

The Dose-Response of the body is of utmost importance. As Frank Schnell, board-certified, PhD toxicologist (retired) explains Dose-Response, “Most biological effects, whether adverse or not, are the consequence of a cascade of biochemical reactions initiated when chemical agents (referred to by pharmacologists and toxicologists generically as “effectors,” “agonists” or “ligands”) bind to effect-specific macromolecular receptors usually distributed on cell surfaces. It is of supreme indifference to the receptor whether the chemical binding to it is of natural, synthetic, endogenous, or exogenous origin. As long as the ligand fits into the receptor’s active site, the former will produce the effect mediated by that receptor.

“This receptor-mediated mechanism of action accounts for the existence of thresholds of effect and for the S-shaped Dose-Response (D-R) Curve that typically results when the strength of the effect (from zero- to 100%-response) is plotted on the ordinate (y-axis) against the logarithm of the dose on the abscissa (x-axis).”

Figure 1 Dose-Response Sigmoid Curve

A typical Dose/Response sigmoid curve.

What is interesting is that “A sub-threshold concentration of the effector will not activate enough receptors to produce in the cell a significant effect. (If this were not the case, the effective regulation of normal metabolic processes would not be possible.)” (emphasis added)

A review of existing research shows SWRCB has overstated a need for increased monitoring.

In its discussion of health effects of perchlorates, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) noted:

“In a study of the general population, Li et al. (2001) examined the prevalence of thyroid diseases in Nevada Counties with respect to perchlorate in drinking water. The cohort consisted of all users of the Nevada Medicaid program during the period of January 1, 1997 to December 31, 1998. Disease prevalence in residents from Clark County (Las Vegas), whose drinking water had 4–24 ? g/L of perchlorate (0.0001–0.0007 mg perchlorate/kg/day), were compared with those from another urban area of similar size (Reno, Washoe County), but with no perchlorate in the water, and also with those from all other counties, also with no perchlorate exposure…. Analysis of the data showed no statistically significant period-prevalence rate difference between Clark County and Washoe County. For acquired hypothyroidism, the prevalence was lower in Clark County than in other counties (opposite to what would be expected).”

However, the SWCRB backgrounder worries that infants may be less tolerant of perchlorate exposure: “Perchlorate’s interference with iodide uptake by the thyroid gland can decrease production of thyroid hormone, which is needed for prenatal and postnatal growth and development, as well as for normal metabolism and mental function in the adult.”

Again, in its discussion of health effects of perchlorates, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found nothing rising to the level of needing more regulation on perchlorate:

“Several developmental studies of perchlorate in humans have focused on the evaluation of neonatal thyroid parameters. Lamm and Doemland (1999) examined rates of congenital hypothyroidism in seven counties of Nevada and California with perchlorate contamination in the drinking water (4–16 ?g/L [ppb]) (0.0001–0.0005 mg/kg/day). The investigators analyzed data from the neonatal screening programs of the two states for any increased incidence of congenital hypothyroidism in those counties. The rates for the California births were adjusted for Hispanic ethnicity, which was known to be a risk factor for congenital hypothyroidism. During 1996 and 1997, nearly 700,000 newborns were screened. The risk ratio in the seven counties was 1.0 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.9–1.2) (249 cases observed/243 expected). The risk ratios for the individual counties relative to statewide expected rates ranged from 0.6 to 1.1. While the results showed no increase in rates of congenital hypothyroidism, it is known that congenital hypothyroidism is caused by developmental events that are not suspected of being affected by perchlorate exposure.

“Kelsh et al. (2003) also found no relationship between congenital hypothyroidism and exposure to perchlorate through the drinking water in a study of newborns (n=15,348) whose mothers resided in the community of Redlands, California, during the period 1983 through 1997 and who were screened by the California Newborn Screening Program. Perchlorate was detected in the water system serving the community at a concentration of up to 9 ?g/L (mean, <1 ?g/L).”

“Crump et al. (2000) conducted a study of school-age children from three cities with different concentrations of perchlorate in drinking water in northern Chile. The city with the highest perchlorate concentration was Taltal, 100–120 ?g perchlorate/L (ppb), water from the city of Chañaral had 5–7 ?g/L, and perchlorate was not detected in water from the city of Antofagasta. The study comprised 162 children 6–8 years of age, of which 127 had resided continuously in their respective city since conception. The children underwent examination of the thyroid gland and a blood sample was taken for analysis of TSH, T4, FTI, T3, and antiperoxidase antibody. After adjusting for sex, age, and urinary iodide excretion, the children from Taltal and Chañaral had slightly lower TSH levels than children from Antofagasta (opposite to expected), but the differences were not statistically significant.”

SWRCB’s selection of information may be charitably viewed as providing a worst-case scenario. While that may be the intent, SWRCB’s background information is rendered biased rather than useful or informative. It is pearl-clutching designed to scare people and thus allow the SWRCB to further ratchet down the already unreasonable EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) of six parts per billion (6 ppb) in drinking water to something so low as to be ludicrous.

The ignorance and laziness of our public officials to accept the word of activists, such as the Environmental Working Group, over pragmatic scientists hurts people. When we require people to spend money on the wrong priorities, that money is not available for things that could truly save lives. As Schnell told me in an email, “In real life, excess conservatism doesn’t just waste money; it also costs lives… i.e., the ones that could have been saved had the wasted money been spent more wisely.”

And this is real money. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, puts the amount of money lost since 1980 due to added regulation at $4 trillion; a drag of 25 percent on our gross domestic product (GDP). “If regulation had been held constant at levels observed in 1980, the US economy would have been about 25 percent larger than it actually was as of 2012….This amounts to a loss of approximately $13,000 per capita, a significant amount of money for most American workers.”

Of course, economics alone should not guide us in decision making. But as Bjorn Lomborg reminds us, “[I]gnoring costs doesn’t make difficult choices disappear; it makes them less clear.”

It is disturbing to find SWRCB providing a hypothesis without any data to support it. The people who depend on us for clean and safe drinking water are ill-served if they are made poorer and not safer with ill-considered regulations. If this new MCL is adopted one can only conclude that SWRCB has abandoned basic science for basic fear-mongering.


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How Science Guess Becomes Science Fact

Hello, ideas. Welcome to the Hunger Games! May the odds be ever in your favor.

Science is under attack. Not breaking news, we can see for ourselves that it is. Right? You have heard, “We don’t have time. The science is settled. We must act now!” yes? If it’s settled, what is it and how does it get ‘settled’?

climate cold road landscape

Photo by Markus Spiske on

So when we say the “science is settled” what do we mean by ‘science’? Perhaps science is a field of study? After all, we want girls to find careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). It is not, but that may be why science is perceived as a sector, a field, rather than what it partly is: a suite of methods for teasing out how everything around us—and within us—works. So rather than being a field of study, science is a way to study?

Science really is knowledge: How it is obtained and verified. The word ‘Science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge.’ So if we say ‘science is under attack,’ that would mean ‘knowledge‘ is under attack. And it is. Knowledge is constantly under attack, and it’s being attacked for the best of intentions: to protect people from being hurt.

I recently listened to Jonathan Rauch’s book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

His book is an apologia for free—no holds barred—speech, and against those who want to prevent such speech from hurting people.

“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. That means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism (no final say); it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will. But we also are not supposed to claim we have knowledge except where belief is checked by no one in particular (no personal authority).”

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

Rauch argues that “liberal science”—his term for the process of “What do we know, and how do we know it?”—is at stake if free speech is curtailed, often by well-meaning people. “No social principle in the world is more foolish and dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence or torture (e.g., “harassment”),” Rauch says, “and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it. The new sensitivity is the old authoritarianism in disguise, and it is just as noxious.” (emphasis is mine)

While free speech is crucial and the threats to it (fundamentalism, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism) are crucial to liberal science, and would not work without the ability to offend, it was Rauch’s discussion of liberal science itself that I found most intriguing.

Knowledge is a product, like the metals we mine and the cars we build. To be more specific, our knowledge is a set of statements which we are satisfied are true—which have been validated, truth tested, in some satisfactory way….

Liberal science is a big and complicated thing. No one could begin to describe it fully. However, with nullius in verba (take no one’s word) and “order without authority” we have the underpinnings of liberal science.

Bertrand Russell once said that “order without authority” might be taken as the motto both of political liberalism and of science. If you had to pick a three-word motto to define the liberal idea, “order without authority” would be pretty good.

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

Who gets to choose what is knowledge? The answer is literally everyone. The competition to stay alive, though, is between ideas, not people.

Like evolutionary ecologies, liberal systems are centerless and self–regulating and allow no higher appeal than that of each to each in an open-ended, competitive public process (a game)….In biological evolution, no outcome is fixed or final—nor is it in capitalism, democracy, [or] science. There is always another trade, another election, another hypothesis….No matter who you are, you must conduct your business in the currency of dollars, votes, or criticism—no special fiat, no personal authority….

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

No one gets a pass. “Who you are doesn’t count; the rules apply to everybody, regardless of identity….no matter how stupid and grubby-minded the critic.” If you want your ideas to be encoded in the current book of knowledge, you must submit them for review.

[The] name of the game is to make knowledge and score credit for it, and you get credit only when your conclusions are checked out by others. Others must be able to rely on your conclusions, confirm your results, trace your logic, get hold of your data. So the game of science forces you to build bridges. You must persuade.

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

So we find that the science never is “settled.” Our knowledge of the world outside and of ourselves shifts, adapts, and evolves as ideas gain or lose credence by how well those ideas perform against all contenders. Welcome to the games, Ideas. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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The Earth’s carrying capacity for human life is not fixed

This article by Ted Nordhaus was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


In a recent Nature Sustainability paper, a team of scientists concluded that the Earth can sustain, at most, only 7 billion people at subsistence levels of consumption (and this June saw us at 7.6 billion). Achieving ‘high life satisfaction’ for everyone, however, would transgress the Earth’s biophysical boundaries, leading to ecological collapse.

Despite its seeming scientific precision, the claim is old, not new – the latest iteration of the longstanding assertion that our population and consumption might soon exceed the Earth’s fixed ‘carrying capacity’. The concept, tellingly, owes its origin to 19th-century shipping, referring to the payload capacities of steam ships. It jumped from the inanimate to the terrestrial at the end of the 19th century, describing the maximum number of livestock or wild game that grassland and rangeland ecosystems could sustain.

Applied to ecology, the concept is problematic. Cargo doesn’t multiply of its own volition. Nor can the capacity of an ecosystem be determined from an engineer’s drawings. Nonetheless, environmental scientists have, for decades, applied the concept to human societies with a claimed precision that belies its nebulous nature.

The ecologist William Vogt was the first to do so in the 1940s, predicting that overuse of agricultural land would lead to soil depletion and then catastrophe. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Paul Ehrlich focused on food production, and the Club of Rome on material resources; while latter-day environmental scientists and activists have focused more on the effects that pollution and habitat destruction will have on the ‘Earth systems’ that human wellbeing depends upon.

But all hold the same neo-Malthusian view of human fertility and consumption. From the 18th-century arguments of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus onwards, prophets of environmental doom have imagined that in response to abundance, humans would respond with more – more children and more consumption. Like protozoa or fruit flies, we keep breeding and keep consuming until the resources that allow continuing growth are exhausted.

In reality, human fertility and consumption work nothing like this. Affluence and modernisation bring falling, not rising fertility rates. As our material circumstances improve, we have fewer children, not more. The explosion of human population over the past 200 years has not been a result of rising fertility rates but rather falling mortality rates. With better public health, nutrition, physical infrastructure and public safety we live much longer.

Today, in the United States, Europe, Japan, much of Latin America, even parts of India, fertility rates are below replacement, ie the average number of children born per woman is below two. Much of the rest of the world will likely follow suit over the next few decades. As a result, most demographers project that the human population will peak, and then begin a slow decline, in some cases before the end of this century.

For this reason, today’s warnings of impending ecological collapse mostly focus on rising consumption, not population growth. As many now acknowledge, our social biology might not function like protozoa, but capitalism does. It cannot survive without endless growth of material consumption.

There is no particularly well-established basis for this claim and plenty of evidence to the contrary. The long-term trend in market economies has been towards slower and less resource-intensive growth. Growth in per-capita consumption rises dramatically as people transition from rural agrarian economies to modern industrial economies. But then it tails off. Today, western Europe and the US struggle to maintain 2 per cent annual growth.

The composition of affluent economies changes as well. Manufacturing once accounted for 20 per cent or more of economic output and employment in most developed economies. Today, it is as low as 10 per cent in some, with the vast majority of economic output coming from knowledge and service sectors with significantly lower material and energy intensities.

For decades, each increment of economic growth in developed economies has brought lower resource and energy use than the last. That’s because demand for material goods and services saturates. Few of us need or want to consume more than 3,000 calories or so a day or live in a 5,000-square-foot house. Many Americans prefer to drive SUVs but there is little interest in hauling the kids to soccer practice in a semi-truck. Our appetites for material goods might be prodigious but there is a limit to them.

Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t exceed the planet’s carrying capacity. Some environmental scientists claim that we have already surpassed the Earth’s carrying capacity. But this view is deeply ahistorical, assuming carrying capacity to be static.

In fact, we have been engineering our environments to more productively serve human needs for tens of millennia. We cleared forests for grasslands and agriculture. We selected and bred plants and animals that were more nutritious, fertile and abundant. It took six times as much farmland to feed a single person 9,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Neolithic revolution, than it does today, even as almost all of us eat much richer diets. What the palaeoarcheological record strongly suggests is that carrying capacity is not fixed. It is many orders of magnitude greater than it was when we began our journey on this planet.

There is no particular reason to think that we won’t be able to continue to raise carrying capacity further. Nuclear and solar energy are both clearly capable of providing large quantities of energy for large numbers of people without producing much carbon emissions. Modern, intensive agricultural systems are similarly capable of meeting the dietary needs of many more people. A planet with a lot more chickens, corn and nuclear power might not be the idyll that many wish for, but it would clearly be one that would be capable of supporting a lot more people consuming a lot more stuff for a very long time.

Such a future, however, is anathema to many proponents of planetary limits, suggesting hubris of the highest order. But if it is, it is at least born of optimism, of the conviction that with wisdom and ingenuity humans can continue to thrive. Demands to restrict human societies to planetary limits, which environmental scientists and advocates claim to know prospectively, suggest something much darker.

Viewing humans in the same way that we view single-celled organisms or insects risks treating them that way. Malthus argued against Poor Laws, in the belief that they only incentivised the poor to reproduce. Ehrlich argued against food aid for poor countries for similar reasons, and inspired population-control measures of enormous cruelty. Today, demands to impose planetary boundaries globally are couched in redistributive and egalitarian rhetoric, so as to avoid any suggestion that doing so might condemn billions to deep agrarian poverty. But they say little, specifically, about how social engineering of such extraordinary scale would be imposed in a democratic or equitable fashion.

Ultimately, one need not advocate the imposition of pseudo-scientific limits on human societies to believe that many of us would be better off consuming less. Nor must one posit the collapse of human societies to worry deeply that growing human consumption might have terrible consequences for the rest of creation.

But threats of societal collapse, claims that carrying capacity is fixed, and demands for sweeping restrictions on human aspiration are neither scientific nor just. We are not fruit flies, programmed to reproduce until our population collapses. Nor are we cattle, whose numbers must be managed. To understand the human experience on the planet is to understand that we have remade the planet again and again to serve our needs and our dreams. Today, the aspirations of billions depend upon continuing to do just that. May it be so.Aeon counter – do not remove

Ted Nordhaus is an author, environmental policy expert, and the co-founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute in California. He is a co-author of An Eco-Modernist Manifesto (2015). He lives in Oakland.


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