The Poison of Ignorance

Six years ago, after scientists found potentially toxic levels of the chemical perchlorate in two missile manufacturing plants in Utah and in several water wells in California, Agriculture Department officials proposed conducting a $215,000 study to investigate whether the Pentagon’s use of the chemical in manufacturing rocket fuel during the Cold War could have caused the pollution. The Pentagon refused to pony up the money, less than one-quarter of the cost of a single cruise missile.

Today, efforts to study the extent of perchlorate contamination remain mired in politics, even as new research suggests that such ignorance may be putting the public’s health at risk.

A study published Monday by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group tested 22 types of lettuce purchased at California supermarkets this year and found that at least four were contaminated with levels of perchlorate that might be high enough to cause thyroid dysfunction.

Last month, the White House Office of Management and Budget barred any federal regulation on perchlorate until the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the existing scientific evidence. That could take up to a year and a half. And since the Pentagon has failed to provide the money for large-scale studies, there’s not much for the academy to look at anyway.


To reduce the chance that the academy will reach a frustratingly inconclusive conclusion, the Bush administration should, as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) proposed Monday, ask the Food and Drug Administration to begin an “immediate investigation” to determine the extent of the lettuce contamination problem.

If nothing else, the Environmental Working Group study should slow a pending proposal by the administration to exempt military bases from environmental laws that would require them to clean up perchlorate and other toxic substances associated with munitions and explosives.

In a campaign speech in April 2000, President Bush said “the biggest polluter in America is the federal government.” With perchlorate studies bolstering that charge, it makes no sense to absolve the military of its cleanup responsibilities.