SALT LAKE CITY - For sixty years, Rocket testing in the state of Utah has been a point of pride.
Such testing has been a creator of high-paying, high-tech jobs and a hub for military research and development. Now, half a century later, we're learning these tests have come at a price; the ultimate costs, no one quite knows.
It's in the form of a chemical called perchlorate, a key component of solid rocket fuel and other weapons systems. It was manufactured and stored in Utah, not always with the greatest of care.
In concentrations as low as 24 parts per billion it impairs thyroid function and inhibits organ development. It poses an especially grave risk to newborns and fetuses, where perchlorate exposure can impair brain development, change behavior and decrease learning abilities.
It's not only been detected in Utah's groundwater, but it's also turned up in the food chain, including the milk supply. And not just here, but in 27 other states, where it's also been found in produce and even breast milk.
Dr. Anila Jacob is a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group. For 5 years, she's been pushing the federal government to put perchlorate standards into law. Until then, she says Utah should act on a state level to protect its citizens.
"Our concern is that it's in the drinking water of 28 states including Utah. We also know that the FDA recently did testing and of the three hundred foods they tested, three quarters, or seventy five percent of these foods tested positive for perchlorate," said Jacob.
So just how pervasive is perchlorate contamination?
A congressional briefing obtained by ABC 4 News shows there are at least 45 contaminated sites in 19 states, all of them near major military installations or defense manufacturers.
Three of the hot zones are in Utah.
The first is a well-documented plume outside Hill Air Force base, where perchlorate has turned up in the groundwater, at 70 parts per billion, and is spreading west to the town of Roy. The contamination goes back to the days of World War II. Remediation efforts are underway.
The second contaminated area is Utah's west desert and the Utah Test and Training range, home to half a century of munitions testing.
The third perchlorate plume is near the Alliant Tech Systems plant in Magna. It turned up in drinking water there ten years ago.
The district board of trustees immediately shut the well off.
As for the water in Magna today, a new state of the art plant, the first of it's kind that Will destroy the perchlorate and return the water to the environment with no residual impact.
Perchlorate has also been discovered in groundwater just west and south of Brigham City, near the Thiokol test site, home to numerous rocket tests.
And according to the Environmental Work Group, that's not all. They say there are 11 perchlorate based businesses thriving in the state of Utah, most all defense related.
Larry Lewis of Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food has been keeping close tabs on the perchlorate issue. He says the state has found traces of it in both well-water and milk, but from where he sits, there's little cause for alarm.
Lewis says, "We follow the FDA guideline of 24 parts per billion and a half parts per billion. The minute amounts that have been found pose no significant health risk to Utah consumers."
In fact, out of 450 private wells recently tested by the state, they found nine wells that had a range of about 6 parts per billion to a high of 15 parts per billion.
But aside from water, how prevalent is perchlorate in the food chain?
ABC 4 News decided to run our own tests, on lettuce and milk purchased from a variety of Wasatch Front stores.
The good news, all of our lettuce samples were free of perchlorate.
The milk samples however, all tested positive. And though the levels were well below the 24 ppb threshold, our findings are now cause for concern.
A brand new EPA study released last week suggests that perchlorate levels as low as 4 parts per billion could have an impact on children under 10, especially two-year-olds.
According to the study, children ages ten and under are the most highly exposed to perchlorate from contaminated foods and beverages. This is because children consume items from food groups that are heavily and consistently contaminated with perchlorate, especially dairy foods.
In addition, their smaller size, in comparison with adults means that pound for pound they are exposed to higher amounts of perchlorate than adults."
Dr. Jacobs says, "We know that dairy products, meat products, vegetables, fruits and grains, all the components of a healthy diet; many of these products are contaminated. We need the EPA and the FDA to take action as soon as possible and protect the American population."
© 2008 ABC News