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New and Unregulated Dangers
More worrisome to some health experts is the increasing abundance of dangerous water pollutants for which the EPA has no standards or limits.
“The number of toxic chemicals in widespread use is increasing dramatically,” says Gina Solomon, M.D., senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and associate director of pediatric environmental health at the University of California, San Francisco. An estimated 1,200 to 2,000 new chemicals come onto the market each year. “But the EPA has been essentially sitting on its hands on drinking water issues since the turn of the century,” Solomon says. The agency has not expanded its list of regulated contaminants since 2000, Dougherty confirms.
As a children’s health advocate, Solomon says she is particularly concerned about endocrine-disrupting pollutants such as phthalates. Phthalates have been in the news of late as makers of children’s toys and baby bottles have worked to remove them from their products. Still, these same chemicals pollute many water supplies. “Even at trace levels they can cause problems in the development of children’s reproductive systems,” Solomon says. “They may even set the stage for cancers later in life.”
Another top concern is perchlorate, used in the manufacture of fireworks, flares, and rocket fuel. By interfering with iodide absorption, perchlorate hampers thyroid function—essential for growth and normal development and body function. Recent studies have shown perchlorate to be surprisingly widespread in drinking water supplies. Indeed, perchlorate was at the top of the “action list” of worrisome contaminants that Sen. Boxer recently demanded EPA officials address.
At present, the EPA is reviewing 116 additional contaminants for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Dougherty says. Each must undergo an extensive review of its potential to harm health, she says, and that can take years. EPA will make regulatory determinations for at least five of these contaminants over the next five years. Perchlorate is furthest along in the process, she adds, with a decision expected within the first half of 2010.