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Air Force Owes Study On Chemical

May 12, 2003 | AP

The U.S. Air Force failed to complete a key study it promised on the amount of perchlorate the public ingests from crops irrigated with Colorado River water, according to a published report.

The study could have helped federal officials calculate the potential health risks of perchlorate for humans, especially newborns, the Press-Enterprise of Riverside reported Sunday.

Perchlorate is an oxygen-rich chemical that interferes with the way the body takes iodide into the thyroid and can disrupt how the gland regulates metabolism. It is unclear how much is dangerous.

Col. Dan Rogers, who headed the Air Force research, said testing vegetables and fruits remains a priority.

In an e-mail, he blamed failure to complete the study on a lack of financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Across the nation, millions of people eat winter lettuce and other vegetables grown with water from the lower Colorado River, much of which is contaminated with perchlorate.

Earlier research had shown that lettuce can absorb perchlorate from irrigation water, but the government never confirmed whether the chemical could be found in commercial produce.

The Air Force received $500,000 in 1999 to study both the amount of perchlorate in crops such as lettuce, as well as the amount found in wild plants and animals.

Instead of completing research on America's table crops, the Air Force focused on wildlife. It asked if perchlorate can be found in cactus mice, mosquito fish, Bermuda grass and other plants located near defense facilities contaminated with perchlorate, according to federal records obtained by the newspaper.

The crop study was shelved indefinitely.

Some environmentalists said placing such research in the hands of the military created a conflict of interest because the military used perchlorate in rocket fuel and could face billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

''They have a very vested interest in the outcome of this research,'' said Renee Sharp, an analyst with the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, which has been following the perchlorate issue.

The Pentagon says humans can tolerate up to 200 parts per billion of the chemical in drinking water. The EPA is drafting guidelines that put that level between 4 and 18 parts per billion and is considering even lower levels.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is sponsoring legislation to require the EPA to set a standard for perchlorate in drinking water next year, two years ahead of the agency's schedule.

In the wake of recent private tests, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration now say they will conduct a crop study.

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