California bureaucrats consider lowering detection limit for purposes of reporting for perchlorate

This is my response to the State Water Resources Control Board regarding their proposal for lowered detection limit for purposes of reporting for perchlorate. (see the previous post for SWRCB’s announcement).


The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) seems to appreciate the Precautionary Principle, which says, “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

In 1825, one of Britain’s most respected publications, the Quarterly Review wanted something quite similar to the Precautionary Principle invoked over railroads. Unless someone took action, locomotives would careen through the countryside at speeds “twice as fast as stagecoaches.” It was potentially dangerous.

According to experts of the day, locomotives threatened harm to the environment and human health. Some physicians predicted that the incredibly high speeds (nearly 20 miles per hour) could cause psychological harm; people would suffer mental anguish from objects entering and leaving their fields of vision too rapidly. Others predicted that passing trains would cause pregnant mares to spontaneously abort. The Review beseeched, “We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour.”

As we know, the world heeded these foresighted experts invoking precautionary measures, and as a result, no mode of transport exceeds eight or nine miles an hour today. Well no, the world didn’t embrace that, but such is the thinking of the SWRCB with regard to perchlorate, Chromium-6, and other chemicals.

In its background material on perchlorate, the SWRCB conflates its use with toxicity, omits that it occurs naturally in nature and is a byproduct of chlorination, and it disregards “dose makes the poison.”

The SWRCB tells the reader 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.

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.” Take two aspirin for a headache and it has a therapeutic effect. Take two grains of an aspirin tablet, nothing happens. Take two pounds of aspirin for a headache and the headache will be gone, along with the person who took it.

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

Now, here’s the kicker, Schnell writes 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, not innuendo and ill-informed supposition, reveals 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 monitoring or 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 cherry-picking 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 NOAEL for perchlorate  translates to a Drinking Water Equivalent Level (DWEL) of 24.5 ppb.

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 the SWRCB more responsive to the environmental lobby than to the scientific communities. SWRCB provides conjecture without any data to support the need for lowered MCL.  As such the legitimate needs of Californians are subsumed by rhetoric. California’s citizens are ill-served if they are made poorer and not safer with ill-considered regulations, abandoning any pretense of scientific objectivity and embracing the paranoid the Precautionary Principle of scaremongering activist environmental NGOs. SWRCB relies on supposition, pearl-clutching, and innuendo rather than science with its messy research. One can only conclude that SWRCB has abandoned basic science for basic fear-mongering.



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