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Tests on milk, lettuce find perchlorate is widespread

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Federal investigators have found traces of a rocket fuel component in milk and lettuce from Salinas to Cedarville, N.J., according to new government data.

Perchlorate was detected in about 90 percent of 128 lettuce samples and in all but three of the agency's 104 milk samples, but not at levels that prompted alarm at the Food and Drug Administration.

OAS_AD('Button20'); "I think that suggests a much broader distribution (of perchlorate) than anybody thought, and the basis of that distribution I don't think is adequately known," said Robert Krieger, an extension toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside.

The FDA said it wasn't recommending diet changes based on its findings, which resulted from the most comprehensive search to date for perchlorate in food. Still, one consumer watchdog group said the data should spark cleanup efforts, and farm groups wondered what it all meant for their products.

Perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and man-made compound. Most of the perchlorate manufactured nationwide is used as the primary ingredient in rocket fuel.

In recent years, increasingly sophisticated measuring equipment has detected perchlorate in water supplies, such as the Colorado River, and in foods. Crops likely are tainted by perchlorate-laced irrigation water.

At high doses, perchlorate can disrupt thyroid function, although scientists and health officials said the levels being detected nationally are not a concern for healthy adults. Thyroid disruption is especially risky for nursing infants and for children because it can retard development.

There are no perchlorate safety standards set for milk or foods. The preliminary federal guideline for drinking water says perchlorate in drinking water should not exceed one part per billion. California's preliminary drinking water goal for perchlorate is six parts per billion.

The FDA released data collected in the first eight months of 2004 on Friday.

Lettuce samples were collected at fields or packing sheds. Several types of lettuce tested showed average perchlorate levels between 7.76 parts per billion and 11.9 parts per billion.

Most milk samples were collected at grocery stores. The average level of perchlorate found in milk was 5.76 parts per billion.

Bottled water from retailers nationwide also was tested, but perchlorate contamination was so limited that it could not be measured in 49 of 51 samples.

The agency also is sampling tomatoes, carrots, cantaloupe and spinach, although those results were not immediately available.

"We are ... producing preliminary information," said FDA spokesman Brad Stone. "In terms of assessing what it means, we are going to work with a variety of other agencies and entities to assess that."

The agency's Web site advises eating a balanced diet of high-fiber, low-fat foods until more is known about the health effects of perchlorate.

The National Academy of Sciences is reviewing key questions relating to whether perchlorate is a public health concern. Its report, due by January, will set the target for perchlorate cleanup nationwide. Cleanup already has begun in some heavily contaminated areas of California.

Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said his agency accounted for people consuming perchlorate from sources such as food and milk when assessing the dangers of perchlorate in drinking water.

He said his agency will review its goal of six parts per billion, a first step in setting a water cleanup standard for the state, when the National Academy of Sciences releases its report.

A spokesman for the head of a state Senate committee on perchlorate contamination was less willing to wait.

"We really try to avoid sounding alarmist on this issue because the problem is so big that it requires cooperation from any number of public and private entities," said David Miller, spokesman for Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario. "But this latest report makes it sound like it's time to start ringing the bells."

At the Oakland office of the Environmental Working Group, one of the most prominent advocates for perchlorate cleanup, Bill Walker said the FDA tests demand immediate attention from federal authorities.

"It's a national problem that needs a national solution," he said.

California farm leaders cautioned against overreacting to the preliminary studies but acknowledged a desire to rid crops of perchlorate.

"It's been the most burning thing on our minds since 2003, when we first started to become aware of the fact that perchlorate was showing up on some of the agriculture commodities that were produced in California and elsewhere," said Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology at Irvine-based Western Growers.

About the writer: The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916)321-1102 or Bee staff writer Thuy-Doan Le contributed to this report. - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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