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Boy pouring drinking water into a glass

A boy pours tap water into a drinking glass. On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it will not impose new limits on perchlorate in drinking water. (Photo: Teresa Short/Getty Images)

'Unscientific and Unlawful': Biden EPA Will Not Regulate Rocket Fuel Chemical in Water

"The Trump EPA gave perchlorate a pass; it was a bad decision then, and it's a bad decision now," said one environmental advocate.

Julia Conley

Public health advocates said Thursday that they plan to resume litigation against the Environmental Protection Agency after the Biden administration announced it would uphold former President Donald Trump's decision to not regulate drinking water levels of a chemical used to make rocket fuel and explosives.

Former President Barack Obama's administration proposed limits for perchlorate after finding in 2011 that drinking water for 16 million people may have unsafe levels of the contaminant, which poses a risk to the development of children and fetuses.

"Tap water across America will remain contaminated by this toxic chemical."

Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were outraged when Trump refused to impose the limits, claiming regulation was "not in the public interest." The EPA's announcement this week sparked renewed criticism, with the NRDC calling the decision "unscientific and unlawful."

"The Trump EPA gave perchlorate a pass; it was a bad decision then, and it's a bad decision now," said Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at the organization. "Tap water across America will remain contaminated by this toxic chemical, which threatens the brain development of babies in the womb, infants, and young children at extremely low levels."

The Trump administration claimed that 56 parts per billion (ppb) was an acceptable level of perchlorate in drinking water—far higher than limits that Massachusetts and California have imposed at the state level, requiring water to contain no more than two ppb and six ppb, respectively.

Before Thursday's announcement, the American Academy of Pediatrics had called on the EPA to establish the "strongest possible" limits on the chemical.

Exposure to perchlorate has been linked to measurable decreases in IQ in newborns; the chemical interferes with the thyroid gland and stunts the production of hormones needed for proper child development.

High concentrations of perchlorate have been found in at least 26 states, with communities near military bases at high risk for exposure because the chemical is a component in munitions.

The limits proposed by the Obama administration were met with aggressive lobbying by military contractors including Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin and were never imposed. The NRDC sued the EPA after it failed to set new standards, securing a court order requiring the agency to regulate the chemical by 2019.

The group then sued the Trump administration when it announced it would not impose limits, but paused the litigation after Biden won the 2020 election.

The risk sciences department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said the EPA's decision represents "a step backwards that leaves the states and communities most impacted out there by themselves."

The EPA said that instead of imposing limits, it will develop a plan to clean up detonation sites with very high levels of perchlorate contamination, provide a "web-based toolkit" to advise water systems about perchlorate, and "continue to consider new information on the health effects and occurrence of perchlorate."

According to Olson, "By refusing to establish a standard or water testing requirements, the EPA decision will also keep members of the public in the dark, without even basic information about whether they are being exposed to perchlorate."

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