World Watch Magazine: November/ December 2003


Washington, D.C.— Water and food supplies in the United States are being contaminated because of the unregulated, large scale dumping of perchlorates, a component in rocket fuel. Linked with health problems including cancer, mental retardation, and attention deficit disorder, perchlorates are showing up in concentrated levels in vegetables such as lettuce. In California, tests have shown lettuce samples to contain perchlorates in concentrations 20 times higher than what California considers safe for drinking water, reports Gene Ayres in the November/December issue of World Watch magazine.

In "A Little Rocket Fuel with your Salad?" Ayres describes how aircraft and missile developers were warned to stop dumping perchlorates into unlined holding ponds, pits, and local aquifers as early as 1949. “Despite repeated efforts by California water managers and regulators to stop the dumping of rocket fuel and related chemicals into the state's groundwater and wastewater system, defense contractors continued with impunity,“ writes Ayres in an in depth review of the scandal that has begun to emerge in recent scattered news reports.

Rather than addressing the problem, the Department of Defense (DOD) has ignored a plethora of studies conducted between 1957 and the present, which prove perchlorates to adversely affect health. Instead, the DOD has allowed the chemicals to travel from polluted ground water up the food chain, to the vegetables people purchase and eat.

Even after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report in 1985 detecting perchlorates in drinking water for 42,000 households in Southern California, the DOD was never required to curtail percholate pollution. In fact, the White House recently issued a gag order, prohibiting EPA researchers or scientists from discussing perchlorates with the press. A recent DOD push to obtain wide-ranging exemption from environmental regulation and restriction does not indicate a major policy shift in the future.

“National security priorities have been continuously used as an excuse for inaction by the DOD,“ says Ayres. “The military has not yet come around to the radical idea that when it comes to national security, protecting our food and water may the be the first line of defense.“


Traveling by boat on the Mekong River of Southeast Asia today is much like it was hundreds of years ago: Natural impediments to navigation have sheltered the largely free-flowing river from being exploited and regulated for shipping and trade. “But if China continues with plans for opening up the northern segments of the Mekong to year-round navigation by large cargo ships, the river residents are in for a rude awakening,“ reports Worldwatch research associate Lisa Mastny.

In "Messing with the Mekong", Mastny writes that China's desire to facilitate the export of raw materials and other goods from its land-locked province of Yunnan to Southeast Asian ports coincides with the Laos government's desire to boost development by benefiting indirectly from China's economic boom. “For fear of rocking the boat with China and losing Chinese investment and development projects, the Laotian government has downplayed concerns that changes to the river current could hurt agriculture on the country's fertile river banks and that blasting the rocks that impede large-scale navigation would destroy important habitat for fish,“ says Mastny.

In Laos, residents did not find out about the project until the blasting began in 2002 and they began noticing increased erosion, higher sediment levels, and disruptions of water flow. Communities in neighboring countries were much more vocal about opposing the project. For the time being, increased public scrutiny in Thailand and Burma has forced China to put a hold on the work. But even if its navigation works are scaled back, China has plenty more changes in store for its downstream neighbors, such as the construction of eight dams along the Mekong in southern China, warns Mastny. “China's clear interest in sustaining its high economic growth rates may not bode well for the people living on the Mekong's banks.“


  • Height of the Washington Monument, the tallest structure in the U.S. capital: 555 feet
  • Height of the new Three Gorges Dam in China, which is wider and taller than 100 Washington Monuments edge to edge: 575 feet

  • Cubic meters of concrete used to build the Panama Canal: 4.3 million
  • Cubic meters of concrete required to build the Three Gorges Dam: 26.4 million

  • Number of cracks, up to 2.5 meters in depth, that have appeared in the Three Gorges Dam since its construction: 80
  • Number of engineers and other experts in China who urged their country's government to “rethink“ its plans to push ahead with the Three Gorges Dam: 53

  • Number of Cherokee Indians who were forced to abandon their homes and land in the infamous Trail of Tears emigration of 1838: 2,800
  • Number of Chinese who will have been forced to abandon their homes and land by the building of the Three Gorges Dam: 1,900,000

  • Percentage of farmers displaced by the Three Gorges Dam who will not receive land in compensation, according to current plan: 40
  • Percentage of migrant laborers displaced by the dam so far who have failed to find replacement jobs in factories: 40

  • Number of months an American official was jailed for fraudulently stating that evidence showed Saddam Hussein had the capability to launch weapons of mass destruction against the United States with 45 minutes' notice—a statement that helped trigger a war that cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives: 0
  • Number of months journalist Dai Qing was jailed for stating her opinion that the Three Gorges Dam would prove to be “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world": 10


CHEMICALS IN WATER SUPPLIES PRODUCE FEMINIZING EFFECTS, LOWER GERM QUALITY: Studies by the Canadian Freshwater Institute and the University of Missouri have confirmed previously suspected effects of estrogen-mimicking chemicals on humans and wildlife. Many public water supplies are cocktails of a range of contaminants, from antibiotics to caffeine, and the two studies raise troubling questions about the effect of these other low-level contaminants.

OZONE LAYER MAKING TENTATIVE IMPROVEMENTS: Two recent studies indicate that the 1987 Montreal Protocol is finally beginning to work. In what the lead author of one study, Michael Newchurch calls the “beginning of a recovery of the ozone layer,“ increases in the concentration of chlorine have begun to slow.

HYDROGEN ECONOMY'S EFFECTS ON STRATOSPHERIC OZONE DISPUTED: Evidence that the leakage of hydrogen gas during production, storage, and distribution could make the ozone layer larger and more persistent put a question mark on whether the development of a hydrogen economy would really benefit the environment. Yet, critics of the evidence published in Science have raised concerns about its accuracy and assert that a hydrogen economy could actually reduce hydrogen emissions by one or two orders of magnitude.

NEW FUND EXTENDS REACH OF THE KYOTO PROTOCOL: The World Bank, in collaboration with the United Nations and the International Emissions Trading Association, launched a fast-track approach to apply the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to smaller projects in the developing world. The Community Development Carbon Fund finances small-scale greenhouse gas reduction projects. Skeptics had doubted the CDM's capability to successfully address such smaller projects.

EQUATOR PRINCIPLES SET BANK RESPONSIBILITY STANDARDS: The international financial community unveiled a set of voluntary environmental and social responsibility guidelines to be applied to all participating banks' projects with capital costs over $50 million. The Equator Principles lay out standards that help banks to judge potential investment projects and to involve stakeholders if the environmental and social risks associated with a project are high. The effectiveness of the Principles is debated within the NGO community.