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Contaminated Lettuce Could Have Been Sold in Nevada

Apr 29, 2003 | RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL Lettuce possibly containing the rocket fuel byproduct perchlorate could have been sold in northern Nevada, but local grocery stores said Tuesday a seasonal shift in the harvest allows them to buy produce now from places that are free of the chemical.

For six months of the year, 70 percent of the nation’s lettuce comes from areas around Yuma, Ariz., and California’s Imperial Valley that are irrigated by the Colorado River.

Perchlorate has leaked into the Colorado River from Clark County ground water.

The Oakland-based Environmental Working Group found perchlorate in four of 22 lettuce samples purchased in the Bay Area in January and February.

The four positive samples had more than 30 parts per billion of the pollutant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a preliminary safety level of one part per billion of perchlorate in water.

And recent tests by the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., found perchlorate in 18 of 18 lettuce samples, at an average of eight parts per billion.

Representatives for both Safeway and Raley’s said the lettuce in their stores now come from the Salinas area, where there have been no reports of perchlorate in the water.

“We have not purchased lettuce from that area since April 1,” said Caroline Conrad, Raley’s communications manager.

Safeway Vice President of Public Affairs Brian Dowling said there’s been a seasonal shift of lettuce harvesting to the Salinas area.

Dowling said the Food and Drug Administration is studying the perchlorate issue and made no decision that it is a significant health threat.

“We are more prone to wait for their judgment on whether or not there is an issue here,” Dowling said. “If there is, the industry will react one way or another.”

California growers also are waiting for the results of testing. They stressed that the Environmental Working Group study tested only a small sample of lettuce and that it might not be representative.

“This is a time when sound science should drive the debate,” said Matt McInerny, executive vice president of the trade group Western Growers Association.

Noting that perchlorate contamination is actually a water quality issue, McInerny said that the government needs to give the industry guidance on how to deal with the problem.

The state of Nevada does not routinely test food for the presence of possible contaminants including perchlorate, said Martha Fransted, Nevada State Health Division spokeswoman. In fact, the state laboratory cannot test specifically for perchlorate, Fransted said.

The state does test when it receives a report of illness possibly caused by food. It could test for perchlorate by sending the food to the FDA or another laboratory, she said.

The state lab wants to improve its testing capabilities to include perchlorate, but the process would detect the chemical in water, not food, she said.

Perchlorate has been used in munitions and rocket fuel manufacturing in Clark County since the late 1940s and early 1950s, said Allen Biaggi, administrator of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

“Through their historic disposal process, there has been significant contamination in the ground water and that has made its way to the Las Vegas Wash,” Biaggi said. From there the perchlorate made it into the Colorado River system all the way to the Mexican border.

There’s also significant perchlorate contamination in Southern California caused by the military and space industries, Biaggi said. He knew of no perchlorate contamination on the Colorado River upstream from Las Vegas.

Perchlorate appears naturally in some places and also turns up in fertilizer, Biaggi said.

Four years ago, his department required Kerr McGee Chemical Corp. and PEPCON, the two companies that produced the perchlorate in Clark County, to begin what Biaggi called an aggressive cleanup effort.

“They have been pretty successful so far, resulting in decrease of (perchlorate) load by 50 percent,” Biaggi said. Efforts continue to capture the other half, he added.

“It’s very easy to put contamination in place,” Biaggi said. “It can take a long, long time to clean up. We don’t have an estimate on how long it will take for the clean up at this point.”

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