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March 2006: Volume 48, Number 3

Who establishes water quality regulations in the U.S.?
by Karen R. Smith

In addition to being the Executive Editor here at WC&P, I hold the same position at our sister publication, Agua Latinoamérica. And I have the distinct pleasure of serving as a member of the Executive Board of the Pacific Water Quality Association. If anyone had asked me what body set water quality standards in the States before January 26th, Id have unequivocably said it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). Perhaps it was, but that changed on the 26th of January. What does that mean for this industry? That requires understanding what happened.

In the late 1990s, questions about perchlorates safety led the U.S. EPA and the Pentagon to agree to work together to research the substance and its effects. Along with defense contractors, they formed the Perchlorate Study Group. They found there was no safe level of perchlorate exposure, which in turn led the Group to fund a critique of the study in 2001, which in turn found the study flawed in a number of ways. In 2002, the U.S. EPA stated that perchlorate should not be in our drinking water because even trace levels endanger babies brain development; they issued a draft risk assessment of one part per billion as the safe limit.

Perchlorate (ClO4(-)) is, &the soluble anion associated with the solid salts of ammonium, potassium and sodium perchlorate. Ammonium perchlorate is used as an energetics booster or oxidant in solid propellant for rockets and missiles. It is, therefore, a national technical asset integral to the nations strategic defense system and space exploration, according to the perchlorate information website, www.perchlorateinfo.comand thereby hangs the conclusion of the tale.

The Pentagon and its suppliers were and are the largest users of perchlorate. Preliminary EPA findings indicated 35 states had dozens of sources of contamination because of military projects ranging from munitions plants to missile propellant manufacturing. Their research claimed that 200 parts per billion was safe for drinking water. As both sides argued, the White House ordered the EPA to halt further action. The investigation was removed from the EPA and turned over to the National Research Council.

The NRC recommended 24 parts per billion of the chemical, a standard they noted presumed no other ingestion of perchlorate from any other source but water. Traditionally, the EPA assumes drinking water is only 20 percent of an individuals exposure to a waterborne contaminant, the balance coming from fruits, vegetables, dairy products and breast milk.

Thats a very condensed version of the events that led to the protective guidance, issued by the U.S. EPA on January 26th of this year, recommending the 24 parts per billion level. My question is what that means for those in the water industryand for consumers as a whole. If this is the new way things are done, we neednt expend time and effort on EPA activities, but should definitely enhance our relations with the Department of Defense. Now that they appear to have a final say in water regulatory activities, we might change our approach accordingly. In all seriousness, if onerous regulatory requirements are in the offing, partnering with an agency in opposition to the EPA might in fact be the way to succeed.

We all lose if the White House allows political agendae to set health policies. Consumer confidence in municipal water quality can already be measured in the rise of bottled water sales and the perchlorate decision will, no doubt, contribute to that. It is up to dealers and manufacturers to acquaint consumers with the factsand with the products and services that can make their drinking water safe.