Why would the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overturn its own scientists and decide to regulate trace levels of perchlorate in drinking water after it recently decided it didn't need to be regulated?
Earlier this month, the EPA announced it will develop a standard for how much perchlorate would be allowed in tap water.
When the EPA reviewed the chemical's safety profile in 2008, it found that the low level of perchlorate in water supplies did not present a health concern that could be reduced by regulation. And there haven't been groundbreaking studies to change that. Nor does it cite any major change in our exposure to the chemical.
What has changed is an increasing adherence to the unscientific precautionary principle, which requires that unless we can prove something absolutely safe, we should assume it is not.
In this case, because the chemical presents risks to animals at high doses, advocates argue it must be regulated, reduced, or perhaps banned, without consideration of cost or whether the regulatory action shows any health benefit. As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson awkwardly put it at a recent Senate hearing on water regulation, "I don't know how you price the ability to forestall a child who may not get autism if they are not exposed to contaminated water." In other words, we don't know, but we have to protect children from industrial chemicals regardless of the cost or our lack of knowledge. (Her example about autism and water is completely out of left-field.)
Perchlorate, which occurs naturally in the environment and is also man made, has even been used as a medication. At appropriate doses, the chemical blocks iodine uptake in the thyroid, which is useful in an overactive thyroid. So activists have been claiming that it has the same effect at very low level environmental levels. But the environmental exposure is many thousands of times smaller than the pharmaceutical dose of 400 milligrams daily and has not been shown to affect the thyroid.In fact, human studies of workers exposed to perchlorate showed no increased thyroid function.
But you won't hear that from the advocates seeking to regulate perchlorate. Because one major source of exposure to the chemical is from rocket fuel, activists repeatedly argue that citizens shouldn't be forced to have rocket fuel in their drinking water. This rhetoric disregards the fact that there are traces of almost everything everywhere. When you are arguing against rocket fuel in tap water, you don't need the science. Unfortunately, celebrity medical correspondents such as CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta repeat the scary claims without even questioning their validity.
Journalists ought to investigate these activist-driven scares, educate the public about basic science, and explain how science applies to such controversies. Instead, all too often, reporters drink it up and spout it out, lending credibility to the misinformation but shedding no light on the issue. Once the populace is sufficiently scared, regulators become apparent heroes by promulgating draconian, unscientific and self-justifying regulations.
Will EPA use actual science to regulate perchlorate? Why should they? They are lauded by self-appointed environmental groups each time they come down on the side of precaution. The more they regulate, the more they are rewarded. Over-regulation may invite litigation from self-interested industry, but this only allows the regulators to further assume a mantle of the champion of the people.
In fact, the agency touts the nearly 33,000 comment letters on their earlier decision not to regulate perchlorate, as a reason for reversing course. This will make great fund-raising fodder for the activists who prompted the letters, but it isn't how we ought to go about regulating chemicals.
It is impossible to accurately calculate the cost of each unnecessary regulation, but the cost to all of us is staggering. Perhaps these costs would be worth it if they saved lives, but because the charges against perchlorate in drinking water are so unfounded it makes this particular regulatory plan particularly hard to swallow.