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Maybe a Brockovich Moment? April 4, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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I watched part of Erin Brockovich yesterday, and caught one of the best moments in the film—a really stellar movie moment—where the female corporate lawyer at the Big Meeting is trying to marginalize Erin’s concern for the drinking water while lifting a glass of water to her lips. Erin points out that the water could come from the contaminated area, and the woman pauses, looks at the water glass, and puts it down, with a look of terror and defeat on her face. This is a “Golden Rule” moment: How would you like it if you were the one about to lose your uterus, or your life, because of contaminants? The reason I bring this up is because of the news that baby formula, here in the U.S., has been found to contain low levels of a chemical also used in rocket fuel, perchlorate—all 15 brands tested. Now this is not exactly a melamine story, or even a contaminated-peanuts story. Nothing was added deliberately, or a contaminant ignored, for profit.

Perchlorate has been found in the water supplies of 35 states and has been detected in everything from vegetables to milk. In the case of dairy, the rocket fuel in the water flows into grass, which is eaten by cows, and is then passed along into milk.

And the Environmental Protection Agency says the levels are safe. But the concern is that not only does the formula contain the chemical in powder form; when it gets mixed with water (with local perchlorate) the contamination increases.

CDC researchers write that “this is reassuring at first glance,” but add that it could be problematic because drinking water in 26 states has high perchlorate levels. So, mixing contaminated powdered milk with contaminated water in those places could result in a dangerous exposure.


The current study was done in one (unnamed) city only, so it could simply be that that city is the one with the problem. Maybe. But how did perchlorate get into the water supply? The ABC News article quoted here doesn’t say, and neither does a New York Times report on the same story. So maybe it has a natural origin? This is what I’ve been able to find, from the CA Department of Toxic Control’s website: It’s partly naturally occurring, in caliche, but mostly found in fertilizer and, yes, rocket fuel. And it is really prevalent in California. But the news articles I read don’t say if the chemical is removed by water filters, or whether it is also present in bottled water. A lot of us simply don’t drink tap water, anyway. So is this the time to declare that our babies are slowly being poisoned? For some researchers and politicians, the EPA’s levels of safety are too high, and need to be revised. Others, such as Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana from U. of Washington and a Seattle children’s hospital, says that this concern may be premature:

“Considered in isolation, these perchlorate concentrations in formula are not concerning for child health,” Sathyanarayana wrote in an e-mail to ABC News. “The reason that some may be concerned about health effects to children is that there are several sources of perchlorate in our environment … and, therefore, the cumulative dose of perchlorate to an infant may be much higher than that found in the formula.”

“That being said,” she added, “the most well-respected studies (only a handful exist) on perchlorate contamination have not found any link between perchlorate contamination in water and health impacts in children. Therefore, we truly do not know if this kind of contamination may be leading to health problems or not.”

 This may be another Alar scare (remember that? 1980s. Nobody dared eat apples because of a low-level carcinogenic chemical used to spray fruit. The concern was not unfounded, but blown out of proportion, according to some. As a result, Alar was removed from fruit production). And let’s face it, media scare stories get a lot of attention. I’m adding to it myself right here…This is an incomplete story. We need knowledge, not suspicion, hysteria, or paranoia. Sometimes chances are worth taking if the benefits are great, on social as well as personal levels. We all know that. But once we have solid knowledge (not “opinion,” or doxa, as Socrates would have said), we need to apply the Brockovich test, as part of our evaluation process: Even if it is statistically safe for, say, tens of thousands, would you agree for your own baby to be number 100,001, the statistical victim?