FDA tests Md. milk, finds chemical from explosives

Perchlorate seeping from APG previously closed Aberdeen wells

December 01, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released data showing potentially unhealthy levels of a chemical used to manufacture explosives in more than 90 percent of the milk and lettuce sampled nationally, including milk sold in Maryland.

Perchlorate - an ingredient in solid rocket fuel, bombs, gunpowder, fireworks and highway flares - is being studied by the FDA because of questions about whether it is contaminating food and water supplies, according to a preliminary agency report released this week.

"At this point, until more is known about health effects of perchlorate and its occurrence in foods, the FDA is ... not recommending that consumers alter their diets," said Kim Rawlings, a spokeswoman for the agency. "But the FDA now intends to expand its perchlorate survey, to include additional food types."

The chemical is receiving increased scrutiny nationally because it seeps from buried explosives at military bases, and from dumping areas near rocket launching pads, into water supplies that are used to irrigate lettuce sold to consumers and alfalfa fed to dairy cows, said Bill Walker, a vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that has been studying the pollutant for about five years.

Perchlorate can cause mental retardation and lower IQs in children and attack the thyroid glands, hurting their ability to make hormones necessary for growth and development, according to the organization. It publicized the FDA findings yesterday, after they were posted on the FDA's Web site Monday.

"This new data clearly shows that perchlorate is clearly a nationwide problem, and it needs a national solution," Walker said. "The government needs to spend a lot of funds to clean up this pollutant, because the defense industry and NASA are responsible for this, along with the defense contractors."

Walker said perchlorate pollution has shut down dozens of drinking wells in more than 20 states.

The city of Aberdeen closed four municipal wells in April 2003 after perchlorate escaped into the water supply from the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, where explosives have been tested for decades.

But the FDA cautioned yesterday that the results released this week are preliminary and that it is conducting more research to determine the health effects of the chemical and its prevalence in food.

The FDA survey of 232 samples of milk and lettuce in 15 states was conducted from December 2003 through Aug. 19, 2004, said Rawlings.

Perchlorate at varying levels was found in 217 of the samples, including all seven samples collected in Maryland. Four of the samples came from milk sold in stores in the state that the FDA would not identify, and three milk samples came from an unnamed "federal research farm" in Maryland, Rawlings said.

The levels of perchlorate in the milk sold in Maryland averaged about 8 parts per billion, ranging from 11.3 parts per billion in a container of whole organic milk sold in one shop, to 5.50 parts per billion in milk sold in another store, according to the FDA data.

The Massachusetts Department of the Environment, which has the strictest perchlorate standards in the nation, recently issued interim guidelines saying that perchlorate levels above 1 part per billion in drinking water are "of concern" to pregnant women, children and people suffering from thyroid diseases.

"Perchlorate interferes with the normal function of the thyroid gland and thus has the potential to affect growth and development and could cause brain damage and other adverse effects, particularly in fetuses and infants," the Massachusetts guidelines say.

After perchlorate contamination was found in wells near the Aberdeen Proving Ground military base, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a health advisory in 2002 saying that drinking water should have no more than 1 part per billion of perchlorate, the same level proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rolf Halden, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the new FDA data are significant because children drink lots of milk and are vulnerable to the chemical while they are growing. But he said the levels in the milk samples were relatively low, so the health impact is unclear.

"This should raise the attention of the regulatory agencies, but it should not raise panic in the general public or change the behavior in terms of drinking milk," Halden said.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences into whether perchlorate is a public health hazard is scheduled to be completed next year.

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