Political will and funds key to safe water

Europe mobilises political and financial resources to support the EU Water Initiative. US government prevents EPA officials from commenting on recent studies that reveal high concentrations of perchlorate in nation's winter lettuce.

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

Last March 2003, critics attacked the European Commission (EC) at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan for not allocating any additional funds for water initiatives despite political pledges made six months earlier at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa. No government or bilateral or multilateral financial institutions made any major financial commitment towards solving water and sanitation problems.

Five weeks later European Commission (EC) President Romano Prodi did urge European Union (EU) member governments to set up a g1 billion EU Water Fund to follow up on the EU Water Initiative, launched during the Johannesburg summit. The fund will provide financial resources to 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the world's poorest nations, to help them achieve WSSD water supply and sanitation targets within the framework of integrated water resources management. These targets aim to reduce by half the number of people not connected to drinking water and without sanitation by 2015.

"Our proposal to commit g1billion to a new EU Water Fund shows our determination to make good the undertakings made at the Johannesburg summit," Prodi explained. "It will serve as a catalyst to encourage others around the world to take similar measures to ease the plight of those less fortunate than we are," he added. The EU president hopes the new fund will be announced at the upcoming G8 Environment Ministers meeting, which will take place in Evian-les-Bains, France from 1-3 June 2003.

Meeting the WSSD targets require the mobilisation of bilateral and multilateral funds, beneficiary countries, public authorities and private industry. The EU Water Fund should jumpstart other G8 funding initiatives targeted towards meeting water and sanitation goals. G8 countries include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States.

Following up on the US perchlorate-contaminated water problem (WWI, Vol.18, Issue 1), the Bush administration ordered US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists not to comment on perchlorate pollution while the EPA draft risk assessment remains under review. Meanwhile two new studies reveal that the nation's fall and winter lettuce, including organic, may contain high concentrations of perchlorate.

Lettuce is the second most consumed vegetable in the USA. Seventy percent of the nation's lettuce from October to March is irrigated with Colorado River water, which the EPA reports contains seven parts per billion (ppb) of perchlorate.

Some call this a "gag order" to silence government experts, but EPA spokesperson Suzanne Ackerman explained "the EPA in conjunction with the Department of Defence referred the draft risk assessment to the National Academy of Science for review in March (2003) so we could get an independent opinion. There's been a lot of scientific conflict of opinion so we'd rather not have our scientists weigh in at this time." This review process could take anywhere between six to 18 months, which delays any regulatory action on perchlorate in water supply.

The EPA's draft risk assessment, which is strongly opposed by the Pentagon, finds health dangers in perchlorate levels from four to 18 ppb. The Pentagon, part of the Department of Defence, and some defence contractors contend that perchlorate is safe up to 200 ppb.

Perchlorate, a rocket fuel component, is known as an endocrine disruptor that interferes with iodide intake into the thyroid gland.

Independent laboratory tests commissioned by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) (http: www.ewg.org) revealed that 18% of the lettuce sampled from retail that was grown in Southern California and Arizona during the fall and winter months contained detectable levels of perchlorate four times higher than the EPA says is safe in drinking water. Studies have also demonstrated that perchlorate tends to concentrate in lettuce five to forty times the amount of the contaminant in irrigation water, but more research is necessary to understand the extent of perchlorate in US produce and water supply.

An EPA study that addresses whether perchlorate is being ingested through food is now being finalised. Its results should affect whether drinking water standards will have to be lowered to account for other chemical sources, such as produce. The US government does have the funds and advanced technical resources to deal with this problem, but does it have the political will?

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

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