406 Dirksen EPW Hearing Room

Barbara Boxer


(Remarks as prepared for delivery)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on a PR campaign telling us that this week, we should “Celebrate National Drinking Water Week.” I am the first to say that there is nothing more important than ensuring that the water children and families drink every day must be safe, and that progress has been made over the past 34 years under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

But until EPA sets scientifically-based health standards for dangerous tap water contaminants, and strictly enforces the law, it is impossible to celebrate this Administration’s drinking water record. Slogans and PR campaigns are no substitute for action.

In fact, today we will hear about EPA’s particularly disturbing failures to address significant risks to our families from two widespread drinking water contaminants: perchlorate and trichloroethylene, usually just called “TCE.”

Perchlorate is used to make rocket fuel, but when it gets into drinking water, this toxic chemical can interfere with the thyroid and affect hormone systems, which control the way the body develops. Infants and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to perchlorate.

Researchers have found that over 20 million Americans’ drinking water supplies contain perchlorate. GAO found in 2005 that there were nearly 400 sites in 35 states contaminated with perchlorate. My state of California had 106 sites.

The evidence of significant exposure to perchlorate and assorted health risks has strengthened in recent years. In 2006, scientists at the CDC found “widespread human exposure to perchlorate” in the US, including in young children. They also found that many women who were exposed to perchlorate in their drinking water had significant changes in thyroid hormone levels.

And we know that we are exposed to perchlorate from many sources, not just drinking water. A January 2008 study by the FDA found perchlorate in 74% of all foods tested, including baby food.

And what has EPA done? The answer is, very little.

In December 2006, EPA revoked its rule requiring some water systems to monitor for perchlorate and to disclose the test results to the public. EPA said it has enough data on perchlorate in water supplies. But then several months later, in May 2007, EPA said it didn’t have enough data on perchlorate exposure, especially from food, to regulate perchlorate in drinking water.

Even many water industry officials like the American Water Works Association have urged EPA to set a perchlorate standard. But EPA has refused to do so.

EPA has issued a guidance for perchlorate cleanup at toxic waste sites, but based this level on a 154-pound adult whose only exposure to perchlorate is from drinking water.

This guidance fails to protect children and pregnant women, and fails to consider the fact that people also are exposed to perchlorate in other ways, such as through food and milk.

EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee said that the cleanup guidance “is not protective of children’s health…is not supported by the underlying science and can result in exposures that pose neurodevelopment risks in early life.”

The story for TCE is, unfortunately, very similar. EPA proposed a risk assessment in 2001 that found the chemical could be up to 40 times more toxic than previously thought. In 2002, EPA’s Science Advisory Board commended EPA’s assessment and urged the agency to proceed with revising and finalizing it.

But according to press accounts, DOD, their contractors, and OMB stopped EPA from moving forward, and successfully lobbied for delay and for a National Academy of Sciences report on TCE.

In 2006, the NAS found that evidence of TCE’s cancer risks had grown since 2001, and recommended that EPA “finalize risk assessments using currently available data so that [cleanups] can be made expeditiously.”

Yet, GAO reported last week that EPA will not finalize its TCE assessment until 2010.

While the federal EPA delays -- or does worse, rolls back safeguards -- children and families are exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals.

I told EPA last week that if the Bush Administration failed to protect our people, Congress would step in.

I have two bills to protect people from perchlorate contamination. The first bill, the “Perchlorate Monitoring and Right to Know Act,” S. 24, says that EPA is to restore the rule requiring that drinking water be tested for perchlorate, and that the results of those tests must be disclosed to the public.

My second bill, the “Protecting Pregnant Women and Children from Perchlorate Act,” S. 150, requires EPA to quickly set a perchlorate standard for drinking water that protects pregnant women and children.

In addition, Senator Clinton, Senator Dole, myself, and several colleagues have a bill, the “TCE Reduction Act,” S. 1911, that would protect people exposed the TCE.

Congress will not sit idle while EPA fails to adequately protect our children. We must step in to require action that will ensure that our children and families can turn on their taps and be assured that what comes out is safe to drink.