EPA: Perchlorate in Drinking Water Can Harm Fetal Brain Development
By Tom Neltner
Pursuant to a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing drinking water regulations to protect fetuses and young children from perchlorate, a toxic chemical that inhibits the thyroid's ability to make the hormone T4 essential to brain development. The rulemaking is part of a long process that began in 2011 when the agency made a formal determination that Safe Drinking Water Act standards for perchlorate were needed. Under the consent decree, EPA should propose a standard by October 2018.
In the latest step in that process, EPA's scientists released a draft report in September that, at long last, answers questions posed by its Science Advisory Board in 2013: does perchlorate exposure during the first trimester reduce production of T4 in pregnant women with low iodine consumption? Does reduction in maternal T4 levels in these women adversely affect fetal brain development? According to EPA's scientists, the answers are Yes and Yes.
For several years, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have developed and refined a model that would predict the effect of different doses of perchlorate on levels of T4 in pregnant women. The latest version of the model addresses women during the first trimester, especially those with low iodine intake. This is important because iodine is essential to make T4 (the number four indicates the number of iodine atoms present in the hormone); perchlorate inhibits its transport from the blood into the thyroid. The risk of perchlorate exposure to fetuses in the first trimester is greatest because brain development starts very early and is fully dependent on maternal T4. If the mother gets insufficient iodine to offset the perchlorate inhibition, she will not produce enough T4 for the fetal brain to develop properly. When free T4 (fT4) levels are low but without increase in thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), the condition is known as hypothyroxinemia. When T4 production is lowered further, the pituitary gland releases TSH to increase T4 production by a feedback loop mechanism.
EPA's scientists reviewed 55 research studies and concluded, "Overall, the results of this literature review lend support to the concept that maternal fT4, especially in the hypothyroxinemic range, is critical to the offspring's proper neurodevelopment" and "the impact of altered fT4 is seen even with small incremental changes in fT4 (and in populations with fT4 across the "normal" range)."From the literature search, EPA identified IQ, motor skills, cognitive and language development and reaction time as measurements of neurodevelopment that enable them to quantify the effects of perchlorate exposure in the first trimester.
EPA also estimated the impact of perchlorate exposure in the population of pregnant women in the first trimester and with low iodine consumption; in other words, how many pregnant women will become hypothyroxinemic due to perchlorate exposure thus increasing the risk of adverse neurodevelopmental effects in their children. They predicted that a dose of:
- 0.3-0.4 micrograms of perchlorate per kilogram of body weight/day (µg/kg bw/day) is associated with a one percent increase in pregnant women with hypothyroxinemia; and
- 2.1-2.2 µg/kg bw/day is associated with a five percent increase in pregnant women with hypothyroxinemia.
While these percentages appear small, they represent a significant number of potentially affected children since neurodevelopmental harm is likely irreversible. EPA did not estimate the number of pregnant women or children potentially affected. We did. Based on four million children born in the U.S. each year, an estimated 400,000 were born to women with hypothyroxinemia. A one percent shift in the population of women with hypothyroxinemia associated with perchlorate exposure would correspond to an increase of 4,000 impacted children; if there is a five percent shift, the number of impacted children born to hypothyroxinemic mothers would increase to 20,000.
The agency is accepting public comments until Nov. 20, 2017 and will convene a peer review panel to review its findings in January 2018. After considering the panel's feedback, EPA will develop a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) and, eventually, a drinking water standard for perchlorate. The model's conclusions and identification of a new reference dose are also expected to inform EPA's standards for hypochlorite bleach to limit degradation to perchlorate and FDA's assessment of its decision to allow perchlorate to be added to plastic packaging and food handling equipment at concentrations as high as 1.2 percent.
EDF and NRDC submitted joint comments to EPA supporting the draft report and its analysis. We also made the following general observations:
- Incremental changes in free T4 (fT4) are fundamental: Critical neurodevelopmental adverse effects could be missed by measuring full range maternal fT4. Windows of susceptibility are common in all organs during development. Hormonal control of brain development is no exception. Therefore, adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes will vary based on the time and duration of decreases in fT4 levels. We appreciate seeing the agency building a model based on this fundamental principle of developmental biology.
- EPA's scientists provide an essential service: Academic researchers laid a solid foundation for the analysis. Without their work, typically funded by government grants, we would not have the evidence necessary to recognize the harm from perchlorate at the levels under consideration. But it took the independent scientists at EPA, building on a model developed by FDA, to provide the objective rigorous review of the evidence and adapt the model.
- The peer-review process works: The agency rose to the challenge of two previous peer-review panels, one established by EPA's Science Advisory Board and the other by EPA's Office of Water. The panels operated in a transparent process and provided independent and objective review of the analysis by EPA, and we expect that this third and final panel will do the same. However, the integrity of the process depends on credibility of the experts on the panel. Screening out these experts because they receive government funding as EPA is now doing is irresponsible. It undermines the quality of the review and the credibility of the process.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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