Explore the extensive list of frequently asked questions about perchlorate below, separated by issue area.
Yes. Even on Mars. Closer to home, Chilean nitrate fertilizer containing naturally occurring perchlorate has been widely used in American agriculture since the early 20th century. Though quantities used today are smaller than the amounts applied earlier in the century, the use of Chilean nitrate fertilizer in California remains substantial.
Perchlorate is a simple salt substance made up of chlorine and oxygen. It is found in nature and can be man-made.
Yes. In the 1950s perchlorate was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a safe and effective medication to treat people with overactive thyroid glands. While it has been replaced in the U.S. with newer medications (partly because enormous doses were required to have any effect and had to be given frequently as perchlorate is rapidly eliminated from the body),  perchlorate is still used as a medicine in other parts of the world. Becaue of its long-standing use as a medicine, we know much more today about how perchlorate works in the body.
 In the early 1960s there was a concern that perchlorate might have an association with aplastic anemia. Seven patients who were being treated with perchlorate developed the disease. There were several possible reasons why, ranging from misdiagnosis of hypothyroidism to environmental concerns (the cases were clustered in two specific areas). No evidence of a connection between perchlorate and aplastic anemia has been shown. What is known is that in the four decades since, perchlorate has continued to be used and no cases of aplastic anemia have arisen among any of these patients.
Perchlorate is widely used by the military, NASA and the commercial space industry as an ingredient in solid rocket propellant (not “rocket fuel”) and explosives. The large amounts of oxygen in perchlorate make it an optimal oxidizer to help solid rocket propellant burn. Perchlorate is also used as an oxidizing component in safety flares, fireworks, auto air bag inflators, lubricating oils and aluminum refining. Perchlorate is naturally present in some fertilizers typically used in organic farming.
Until recently, perchlorate was detected only in a few places where it was manufactured or used in large quantities. In 1997, new techniques made it possible to detect perchlorate in water at very low levels — about 4 parts per billion (ppb). Because of these advancements, low levels of perchlorate have been detected in more places. Once perchlorate was detected at these low levels, industry and government began reviewing and studying the health effects of perchlorate, resulting in several new studies that showed these low levels have no measurable effect on human health. Treatment technologies have also been developed and implemented to address perchlorate in water.
Update: Perchlorate is less present in the environment today.
There are currently two major technologies in use for perchlorate removal. Ion Exchange Technology uses a resin to absorb perchlorate and remove it from water, affording the opportunity for safe and appropriate disposal of perchlorate. Biological treatment is a process that uses microorganisms to break down perchlorate into other components. In this process, water can be treated in a tank or in the ground. The primary resulting component is chloride, which is part of common table salt. Other technologies are currently under development.
The easiest way to obtain this information is to call their local water company. Or, if their water service is provided by a municipal utility, citizens can contact the customer service center (usually listed on their utility bill) and get information on who their water purveyor is and how to contact them. They can also visit the water supplier’s Web site and look for either the water quality report or the Consumer Confidence Report. If a district has detected perchlorate it must be listed.
To derive the recommended reference dose – the maximum amount of a substance in drinking water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) considers “safe” if consumed every day for a lifetime of exposure – the National Academies of Science (NAS) Committee selected as its starting point the No Observed Effect Level (NOEL) dose of 0.007 milligrams per kilogram per day. This level is the lowest dose used in an adult clinical study by Greer et al. (2002). At this dose, there was no difference in the amount of iodide uptake inhibition by the thyroid between people exposed to perchlorate and those not exposed to perchlorate. NAS indicated that this effect, inhibition of iodide uptake by the thyroid, is the first effect to occur before any other effects of exposure can occur. However, NAS is clear that iodide uptake inhibition is not an adverse effect (See the NAS report, “Health Implications of Perchlorate Ingestion.”) Using standard default EPA conversion practices, the RfD of 0.007 milligrams per kilogram per day is equivalent to 245 ppb in drinking water. NAS divided this dose by a safety factor of 10 to account for sensitive populations – fetuses, particularly those of pregnant women who have hypothyroidism or iodide deficiency. (See Page 172 of the NAS report, “Health Implications of Perchlorate Ingestion.”) NAS resulting recommended RfD (0.0007 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day) would be equivalent to 24.5 ppb in drinking water.
The NAS Committee acknowledges using an unconventional approach to develop a Rfd from a dose that causes no effects at all. This dose is 57 times lower than the dose that the NAS Committee identified as the minimum dose before any theoretical adverse effects of perchlorate exposure could occur (14,000 ppb).
The best scientific and medical research shows that newborns and children are not affected by perchlorate at the low levels found in drinking water. Three studies conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Pearce and colleagues in 2010, 2011 and 2012 added to the scientific database of research confirming this conclusion. These studies examined thousands of pregnant women in Athens (Greece), Cardiff (Wales), Turin (Italy), Cordoba (Argentina) and Los Angeles (USA) and all had the same finding: low-level perchlorate exposure is ubiquitous in the population, but it is not associated with alterations in thyroid function during pregnancy.
Several studies have ealuated how perchlorate might affect newborns.
- Li et al. looked at the thyroid function of newborns in Las Vegas, Nevada, where low levels of perchlorate exist in the water, and in Reno, Nevada, where there is no perchlorate in the water. In comparing the results of standard tests of newborns in the two areas, scientists found no difference between the newborns in terms of thyroid function.
- Lamm and Doemland compared counties in California and Nevada, some with trace amounts of perchlorate in the water and some without, and had similar results.
- Tellez et al. found no impacts from perchlorate on pregnant women during the critical period between the late first and early second trimesters, and no effect on fetal development or thyroid levels in newborns. The study examined pregnant women and babies from three cities in Chile, where perchlorate levels range from non-detectable to 110 ppb and daily intake of dietary iodide is equivalent with the U.S.
- Kelsh et al. evaluated whether newborns had higher rates of primary congenital hypothyroidism (PCH) or elevated concentrations of thyroid-stimulating hormones in a community where perchlorate was detected in groundwater wells. The findings, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggest that residence in a community with potential perchlorate exposure has not impacted PCH rates or newborn thyroid function.
- Other studies show there are no measurable effects on human beings at doses up to 245 ppb.
Should pregnant women or mothers of infants take any special precautions? Where can they find further information?
As with all questions of health relating to pregnancy, prospective mothers can obtain the best possible information by speaking directly with their doctor. Information may also be obtained from the American Thyroid Association.
Although there are no measurable effects when perchlorate is in the body at low levels, any effects of perchlorate on the body’s ability to produce hormones are fully reversible once exposure to high levels declines or stops.
Perchlorate is not stored anywhere in the body.
The effect of perchlorate in the body at doses above 0.007 milligrams per kilogram per day (equivalent to 245 ppb in drinking water using EPA default assumptions) will be the same, regardless of whether its source is from drinking water or food. Perchlorate is not absorbed through the skin. To calculate the total dose from all sources, however, it is not correct to add the concentrations found in water, milk and various other foods. When calculating a total dose, the amounts of water, milk and other foods that a person ingests must be considered.
A variety of substances found in everyday foods and drinking water can affect the body in essentially the same way as perchlorate. Nitrates and thiocyanates, which occur naturally in foods like broccoli, cauliflower, meats and leafy vegetables are all considered essential to a healthy diet, and have the same thyroid effect as perchlorate.
Much of the research available on perchlorate appears to have been funded by industry. Is this information credible?
The public can be confident in the accuracy, validity and credibility of the research. Many people believe that industry — rather than taxpayers — should fund this kind of research, but with safeguards in place to guarantee the validity and credibility of research findings. With respect to the perchlorate research referred to here, several of these safeguards are in place:
- The scientific research has been conducted entirely independent of the funding organizations.
- The research findings have been peer-reviewed by independent, neutral and respected scientists to verify the research was done correctly and the results are valid.
- These studies have also been published in internationally respected scientific journals.
This critical review ensures the studies conducted are credible and can be replicated by other scientists, now and in the future.
A great deal is known about perchlorate, in part because of its longstanding use as a medicine. Substantial research has been conducted since the mid-1990s to improve scientific and medical understanding of perchlorate’s health effects. These studies, particularly one by the National Academy of Science (NAS), show perchlorate causes no measurable effect on human beings at levels many times higher than the minute amounts found in the environment.
In risk assessment, the “point of departure” is the dose selected as the starting point to which uncertainty or safety factors are applied to derive a “safe” dose.
Historically, this starting point is either the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) or the Lowest Observed Adverse Effect Level (LOAEL). The use of a No Observed Effect Level (NOEL) is a dramatic departure from current policy and constitutes a much more conservative starting point than has been used for any other regulated chemical.
What body weight should be used to calculate a safe drinking water concentration using the NAS Committee’s recommended RfD?
By definition, an RfD assumes exposure over a lifetime and takes into account special considerations of sensitive populations such as pregnant women, children, infants and fetuses. Read the U.S. EPA’s definition of a reference dose on their website » The NAS Committee calculated a RfD by starting with a No-Effect Level and then applying a 10-fold safety factor to ensure protection of potentially sensitive populations. If this value was used to calculate a safe drinking water concentration, any additional adjustment to account for sensitive populations, such as using body weights and drinking water consumption rates for the sensitive population, would be unnecessary and in essence “double counting.”
The NAS Committee made several recommendations for future research, noting that sufficient data now exists to move forward with the regulatory process. Since the NAS report, multiple studies have filled the few data gaps identified by NAS and have confirmed the NAS conclusions.
What is the Part Per Billion (ppb) level in drinking water that equates to the NOEL as defined by the NAS Committee?
EPA uses standard default conversion factors for body weight (70 kilograms) and tap water consumption (2 liters per day) to translate RfDs to drinking water equivalents in ppb. For most people in a population, these assumptions are conservative as most people do not drink this much water each day (84 percent of the population drinks less than this amount each day). The following ppb equivalents correspond to various perchlorate doses:
PPB-EQUIVALENTS FOR VARIOUS DOSES
|No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) [0.4 mg/kg per day]
|No Observed Effect Level (NOEL) [0.007 mg/kg per day]
|NAS Committee recommended reference dose [0.0007 mg/kg per day]
The NAS Committee based its RfD on the NOEL instead of the NOAEL and applied an additional 10-fold safety factor to account for sensitive populations.
In 2007, the State of California —accounting for perchlorate exposure from water, farm products and cow’s milk — enacted a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for perchlorate in drinking water of 6 ppb. This is an exceptionally conservative approach considering studies show perchlorate begins to affect the thyroid at approximately 245 ppb, and below this level there is no measurable effect. No studies show environmental levels of perchlorate cause harm to human health.
Are the federal 24.5 ppb Drinking Water Equivalent Level (DWEL) and California’s MCL “final” standards?
California’s current MCL is “final” in that it is currently enforceable, but is under review by regulatory authorities as part of a review process required by state law. At the federal level, the U.S. EPA has decided to set a national drinking water standard for perchlorate, but has not yet indicated what standard will be proposed.
Following a mandatory five-year review mandated by state law, California proposed revising its Public Health Goal (PHG) for perchlorate from 6 ppb to 1 ppb. The State Water Resources Board is now conducting research to determine how frequently perchlorate is found in drinking water and whether perchlorate occurs frequently enough to merit further ation.
EPA’s 24.5 ppb reference dose (the maximum dose without any risk, abbreviated RfD) may be used by officials across the U.S. to make site-specific cleanup or interim drinking water standard decisions involving perchlorate. States and private parties also may look to EPA’s RfD and Drinking Water Equivalent Level (DWEL) to make similar decisions.
In February 2011, despite evidence in the scientific record that perchlorate does not meet the requirements for regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, U.S. EPA decided to move forward in setting a drinking water standard for perchlorate. The EPA’s determination began a multi-year process involving several opportunities for public comment. Barring any decision to pause or stop the process, the EPA’s next step is to issue a draft standard for public comment.
The potentail costs of drinking water standards more restrictive than what credible science says is necessary to protect public health are staggering. California, Nevada and Arizona could be the states most impacted. Misguided standards would in effect create a “problem” where one does not really exist, forcing citizens, industry and government to incur significant expenses for new treatment plants, retrofitting existing treatment plants, purchasing additional water supplies, lowering reservoir levels and pumping more groundwater from existing sources. This substantial expense of resources would have no public health benefit.
To implement perchlorate compliance strategies would mean substantial costs for small water systems, with conceptual costs above $3 per 1,000 gallons for very small systems (serving less than 500 people). While the total costs for the MCL are low, the cost burden would be primarily placed on a small number of water systems and their customers.
Perchlorate is being contained, removed and treated at sites where it has been used for manufacturing. New state-of-the-art technologies for removing perchlorate from water have been developed and put to use. Others are being developed or refined.