Volunteers take pollution pills in study on drinking water

The Associated Press
Tuesday November 28, 2000

SAN BERNARDINO — A hundred volunteers are participating in a drinking water study which requires them to take pills containing an industrial pollutant found in rocket fuel. 

Volunteers were recruited by Loma Linda Medical Center and are being paid $1,000 apiece to see if a pollutant called perchlorate is harmful to human health, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday. 

The experiment, funded by Lockheed Martin, has raised questions about whether scientists should allow people to ingest chemicals or pesticides to research the dangers of environmental contaminants. 

But those who perform these human experiments compare them to clinical trials for drugs. Scientists strengthen their case by saying that perchlorate is not just a pollutant but also a drug used to treat hyperthyroidism. 

However, medical ethicists say clinical trials are done to help find treatments for sick people while consuming a pollutant has no medical benefits. 

“These tests are inherently unethical,” said Richard Wiles, research director of the Environmental Working Group, a national environmental group opposed to human clinical trials for pollutants. 

The six-month perchlorate experiment, which began in August, reportedly is the first large-scale study to use human volunteers to test a water pollutant. Pollutants are usually tested on lab animals. Of the 100 volunteers involved, half of them ingest the pollutant and the others get a placebo. 

Those taking the perchlorate are swallowing up to three milligrams daily – 83 times more than a person would get from drinking water containing the amount allowed by California’s Department of Health Services. 

At high doses, perchlorate can inhibit production of thyroid hormones. Normal thyroid function is critical for regulating the growth of fetuses and young children and the metabolism of adults. 

Experts are trying to determine whether small doses of perchlorate – like those found in water supplies in San Bernardino, Azusa, Santa Clarita, Riverside and other areas – interfere with thyroid glands. 

A study published this year shows that infants in the Lake Mead area of Arizona – where water contains perchlorate – are born with altered thyroid function.  

But other studies, in perchlorate-contaminated areas of Las Vegas and Chile, have shown no such effects. The volunteers in the Loma Linda experiment are undergoing extensive medical testing to ensure that they face no threats while participating in the study. The examinations include monthly tests to measure their thyroid, liver and kidney function. 

There is currently no government agency that regulates human experiments. However every institution has a review board that must approve every study. 

The boards of three medical institutions approved Loma Linda’s perchlorate tests, said Anthony Firek, who is directing the study. 

In addition to Loma Linda, the study was approved by Boston University – which employs one of the researchers – and the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center, where some of the tests are being done.