SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY: Water Puts Children at Higher Risk for Cancer
A recent study by the Environmental Working Group -- a national research organization supporting tougher pesticide controls -- reveals that children living in the San Joaquin Valley "assume more cancer risk in their first year of life than the government deems safe for an entire lifetime" due to ingestion of contaminated tap water. Officials blame the long-banned pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a potent soil fumigant and the most significant and frequently detected contaminant lingering in the California ground water system. Assuming that the children ingest baby formula made with polluted water, kids in 13 of the 25 affected communities "would get their entire allowable lifetime dose of DBCP" before turning two years old. The Environmental WOrking Group's Vice President of Research Richard Wiles notes that babies in the affected areas "are literally surviving on DBCP-contaminated tap water." But in nearly every case, the tainted water -- used by 1.3 million residents from Lodi to Bakersfield and farther south to Riverside -- meets the state's safety standards. The Scripps-McClatchy News Service/Contra Costa Times reports that much of the safety discrepancy is due to the relatively high limit on DBCP -- 100 times less protective than almost all other regulated drinking-water contaminants -- and the failure to consider children's higher susceptibility when establishing standards 10 years ago.
On the Defensive
While the U.S. Government banned the use of DBCP over 20 years ago because it caused cancer in laboratory animals, three of the manufacturers of DBCP oppose tougher drinking-water standards. Dow Chemical, Shell Oil and Occidental Chemical argue that they will have to foot the bill for additional water treatment. Bound by legal settlements with Fresno and Modesto, the companies claim stricter regulations will require a "prohibitively expensive filtration system" because conventional treatments do not filter out the pesticide. One official noted that the clean up will cost "many millions of dollars." Chemical companies also contend that new treatment systems would not "result in fewer potential cancer cases" but rather the costs would "translate to dramatic rate increases for customers of water utilities" (Bowman, Sacramento Bee, 11/14).
California officials reviewing the Environmental Working Group's analysis called it "provocative," declaring it "a 'reasonable' new perspective on pesticide exposure. The unique aspect of the environmentalists' work on DBCP is the "reassessment of cancer risk by age," a trend state and federal regulators have only recently begun to consider. Typically, adult dosages are used to determine the general public's exposure to contaminants when establishing standards for food, air and water safety. But officials are beginning to realize this process fails to assess children's "special" vulnerability and exposure to chemicals, including body-weight ratio. George Alexeeff, deputy director at California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment said, "We have not done this kind of evaluation before, so this is something we have to think about" (Sacramento Bee, 11/14). Under legislative mandate, California state Health Director Diana Bonta has until January 1 to decide whether or not to change the DBCP contamination limits. But Bill Walker, California director of the environmental group, warns, "There's no known safe level of exposure to DBCP" (Scripps-McClatchy News Service/Contra Costa Times, 11/15).