WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will not impose any limits on perchlorate, a toxic chemical compound that contaminates water and has been linked to fetal and infant brain damage, according to two Environmental Protection Agency staff members familiar with the decision.
The decision by Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the E.P.A., appears to defy a court order that required the agency to establish a safe drinking-water standard for the chemical by the end of June. The policy, which acknowledges that exposure to high levels of perchlorate can cause I.Q. damage but opts nevertheless not to limit it, could also set a precedent for the regulation of other chemicals, people familiar with the matter said.
The chemical — which is used in rocket fuel, among other applications — has been under study for more than a decade, but because contamination is widespread, regulations have been difficult.
According to the staff members, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about agency decisions, the E.P.A. intends in the coming days to send a federal register notice to the White House for review that will declare it is “not in the public interest” to regulate the chemical.
Perchlorate can occur naturally, but high concentrations have been found in at least 26 states, often near military installations where it has been used as an additive in rocket fuel, making propellants more reliable. Research has shown that by interfering with the thyroid gland’s iodine uptake, perchlorate can stunt the production of hormones essential to the development of fetuses, infants and children.
The new policy will revoke the 2011 E.P.A. finding that perchlorate presents serious health risks to between 5 million and 16 million people and should be regulated. To justify doing so, the Trump administration will cite more recent analyses claiming concentrations of the chemical in water must be at higher levels than previously thought in order to be considered unsafe.
In addition, because states like California and Massachusetts regulated the chemical in the absence of federal action, the E.P.A. will say few public water systems now contain perchlorate at high levels, so the costs of nationwide monitoring would outweigh the benefits, the people who have viewed the rule said.
“The agency has determined that perchlorate does not occur with a frequency and at levels of public health concern, and that regulation of perchlorate does not present a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems,” the draft policy reads, according to the staff members.
In public comments, the Perchlorate Study Group, a coalition made up of aerospace contractors including Aerojet Rocketdyne, American Pacific Corporation, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, had strongly urged the E.P.A. to withdraw its 2011 determination because “perchlorate does not occur with a frequency and at levels of public health concern” in public water systems.
The decision is the latest in a string of Trump administration regulatory actions that weaken toxic chemical regulations, often against the advice of E.P.A.’s own experts, in ways favored by the chemical industry.
Last year the administration announced it would not ban chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that its own experts linked to serious health problems in children. It also opted to restrict, rather than ban, asbestos, a known carcinogen, despite urging by E.P.A. scientists and lawyers to ban it outright like most other industrialized nations.
“This is all of a piece,” said Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “You can draw a line between denial of science on climate change, denial of science on coronavirus, and denial of science in the drinking water context. It’s all the same issue. They’re saying ‘We don’t care what the research says.’”
Andrea Woods, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in a statement that the agency had not yet made a final decision on perchlorate. “Any information that is shared or reported now would be premature, inappropriate and would be prejudging the formal rulemaking process,” she said.
Ms. Woods said the final rule would be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review, adding “the agency expects to complete this step shortly.” She did not answer questions about the court order.
The regulation of perchlorate has been a political football since the 1990s when testing found the presence of the chemical in hundreds of wells.
In 2008, the Bush administration said it would not set limits on the chemical. One year later, the Obama administration moved to reverse course. It issued a recommendation to states that 15 micrograms per liter is the highest concentration of perchlorate in water that the most sensitive populations, like pregnant women, should ingest.
The Obama administration dragged its feet, though, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, sued. Moving ahead with regulation ultimately fell to the Trump administration and, in 2018, the E.P.A. agreed to a court settlement requiring a final standard on perchlorate. The court granted the administration extensions, and a final standard must be issued by June.
Last year the E.P.A. did propose federal regulation of perchlorate but it suggested a limit of 56 micrograms per liter, more than three times higher than what the E.P.A. had previously determined to be safe.
It also asked for comments from the public on an even higher threshold of 90 micrograms per liter, as well as whether to abandon plans for regulations altogether.
The final rule described by the staff members shows that the administration chose the most extreme option.
In doing so, the policy notes that the idea of setting a limit for 56 micrograms per liter was based on studies showing that it could avoid an average I.Q. loss of two points among babies of iodine-deficient pregnant women.
Even an exposure of 18 micrograms per liter, slightly above the current federal recommendation, would amount to an average I.Q. loss of one point. Critics of the policy said the E.P.A. was implicitly accepting that those health outcomes are not considered adverse health effects, and that the decision could affect the future regulation of other chemicals.
“Not only is E.P.A. acting in defiance of a court order and the law, it’s setting a terrible precedent by ignoring much of the science and allowing such a high level of perchlorate in tap water that it acknowledges is associated with an average 2-point I.Q. loss in exposed kids,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ms. Woods, the E.P.A. spokeswoman, declined to respond to a question about I.Q. damage from perchlorate.
Chemical industry representatives did not respond immediately to a request to discuss the E.P.A. policy. But in public comments to the agency, they, along with some state water districts and military contractors, urged the E.P.A. to not regulate perchlorate.