Rocket fuel in powdered infant formula? Sounds like a parent's nightmare, but it's true.
In a study published last month, the Center for Disease Control reported finding perchlorate contamination in all 15 of the formulas it studied. The military's fuel of choice for rockets and other explosive ordnance since the 1940s, perchlorate is a thyroid toxin that causes neurological defects in fetuses and infants.
CDC did not disclose the brands it tested, but the two with the highest perchlorate concentrations represented 87 percent of the US infant formula market. So if you're a powdered formula consumer, odds are you've bought the most seriously contaminated stuff.
How bad is the news? CDC tells us that IF perchlorate-free water is used to reconstitute contaminated formula "most infants would never come into contact with levels of the chemical higher than the EPA's reference dose."
But that's a big if. Leaving aside the question of whether EPA's reference dose is adequate to protect childrens' health—and there's plenty of debate about that—10 million Americans in 26 states simply do not have perchlorate-free tap water. And because EPA does not regulate the chemical, you're on your own to figure out just how bad your water is. EPA suggests you research whether your state independently monitors perchlorate concentrations and arrange for a certified lab to test your water supply. Thanks, but that's not exactly a realistic solution for stressed out, bleary-eyed parents.
And to make matters worse, breast-feeding may be no better an option if your water is among the nation's most contaminated. In a 2005 multi-state study researchers at Texas Tech University found perchlorate in all 36 of the breast milk samples tested, at levels as high as 20 times recommended concentrations. That study, along with others raised hackles at the time, but years later we are still without a national standard for the contaminant.
That is scandalous. And if you have a chance to read Rena Steinzor's riveting recent account of the science and politics of perchlorate in Mother Earth and Uncle Sam, it's also understandable. EPA has known about the problem since 1985 when it discovered extensive perchlorate contamination around California military facilities. And study after study by the Environmental Working Group and others have confirmed the contaminant's pervasiveness. Yet because of years of intense lobbying by the Pentagon, politics prevailed over science to the profound detriment of public health.
Fortunately, new EPA Adminstrator Lisa Jackson has indicated she will revisit the agency's Bush-era decision not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. In January, EPA published an interim health advisory for perchlorate and has said it will make a final determination on whether and to what extent to regulate the contiminant pending input from the National Academy of Sciences.
We will be watching, and hoping.