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Tests Find Toxic Fuel Ingredient In Lettuce

Apr 28, 2003 | The Oregonian A laboratory test of 22 types of lettuce purchased at supermarkets in Northern California found that four were contaminated with perchlorate, a toxic rocket-fuel ingredient that has polluted the Colorado River, the source of the water used to grow most of the nation's winter vegetables.

The environmental group that paid for the testing by Texas Tech University conceded that the sample was far too small to draw any definite conclusions about how much perchlorate is in the lettuce Americans eat. But the organization, the Environmental Working Group, said the results were alarming enough to warrant a broad examination by the Food and Drug Administration.

"It appears perchlorate in produce is reaching consumers, which should be a wake-up call for the FDA," said Bill Walker, a western representative in the group's Oakland, Calif., office. "A lot of people might look at this and say it was only four out of 22 what is the problem? Well, when nearly one in five samples of a common produce item are contaminated with a chemical component of rocket fuel, that's significant."

In response, FDA officials said they had been planning to begin testing foods for perchlorate at a number of sites around the United States but still were developing the scientific methods to do it.

"We do understand that there is a potential for perchlorate from irrigation water to end up in food," said Terry Troxell, the director of the FDA's office of plant and dairy foods and beverages. "We have already been moving in this area. We will certainly take their results into account."

The four lettuce samples all contained substantial quantities of perchlorate. One, a prepackaged variety of organic mixed baby greens, had a level of perchlorate contamination at least 20 times as high as the amount California now considers safe for drinking water. The other three were packaged butter lettuce and radicchio, romaine lettuce and radicchio and a plain head of iceberg lettuce. All were at least five times as high as California considers safe for water.

State and federal environmental officials think that perchlorate, a salt widely used by the U.S. government to help power missiles and the space shuttle, might cause health problems, even in trace amounts. Because it is known to affect the production of thyroid hormones, which are critical to early brain development, researchers think perchlorate exposure might be especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children.

But the Pentagon and defense contractors, who together produced most of the nation's perchlorate, dispute those conclusions, saying their scientists think it poses a health threat only in doses dozens of times higher.

No state or federal agency has set any enforceable health standards for perchlorate in water and food. However, several are developing them, including the California Department of Health Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Agriculture groups, which note that the perchlorate in produce is thought to come from the water that farmers use to irrigate crops, not from pesticides, urged swift government action.

"This is a problem. It's not one we created, but it's one we are concerned about. We want the leading regulatory agencies to address this problem as soon as possible," said Hank Giclas, a vice president of the Western Growers Association, whose members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and 70 percent of the fresh fruit and nuts in California and Arizona. "In the meantime, we want people to continue eating fruits and vegetables."

The EPA declined to make any of its perchlorate experts available to discuss the Environmental Working Group's findings, which they were permitted to review. A statement released by the agency's headquarters said that the EPA would not comment further on the contaminant until the National Academy of Sciences completes an independent peer review it is conducting of EPA's work to date on perchlorate and human health.

The nationwide price tag of perchlorate cleanup could be in the tens of millions, and possibly even billions, of dollars, according to water officials and other experts, who say it has the potential to dwarf California's problems with MTBE, a gasoline additive that tainted groundwater supplies.

Perchlorate, which is highly soluble, has been detected in water supplies in California and at least 19 other states, usually near defense contractors or military bases. The Colorado River, which supplies drinking water to about 15 million people in the southwestern United States, contains perchlorate that leached from the site of a former rocket-fuel factory in Nevada.

Environmental groups have warned that perchlorate might be widely present in vegetables, because countless crops are irrigated with water from the same tainted sources.

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