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Rocket fuel lettuce { April 29 2003 }

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Rocket Fuel Component in U.S. Lettuce: Study
Tue April 29, 2003 12:43 PM ET

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's winter crop of lettuce contains unhealthy levels of a rocket fuel component that can harm developing fetuses, according to a small study conducted for an environmental group by Texas Tech University.

The study, commissioned by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, showed that lettuce produced in California's Central Valley farmland between October and March each year absorbs four times as much perchlorate from the Colorado River as is considered safe by federal environmental authorities.

Although just 22 samples of lettuce were examined for traces of the solid rocket fuel component, the study's organizers hoped it would spur a more comprehensive look at the situation.

"We are a small non-profit organization and we are hoping that the results from our admittedly small sample will spur the federal government to do a more definitive study," Environmental Working Group spokesman Bill Walker said on Monday. "This question has been around since 1997 yet the federal government has failed to clear it up."

Perchlorate is the explosive component of rocket and missile fuel and is highly soluble in water. Exposure to perchlorate can cause mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech, and motor skill deficits in developing fetuses.

Perchlorate contaminates the drinking water of 20 million people in 20 states, and the Colorado River, which irrigates 70 percent of the nation's winter lettuce, the study said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tentatively set the standards for safe perchlorate levels in water at one microgram per liter but there are now no enforceable standards or widespread testing for the substance, the study found.

In January and February, the scientists bought 22 commercial lettuce samples for analysis, including prepackaged and head lettuces, adult and baby greens, both organically and conventionally grown from several different distributors.

Four of the samples contained an average of four micrograms per liter, the study said. Although the rest did not have measurable levels, researchers cautioned that the detection level for perchlorate in foods is relatively high.

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