Rocket Fuel, Life on Mars and ADHD

mentally impairedFrom the roar of mighty rocket engines to extraordinary scientific discoveries about our world and our universe, for five decades NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, has stood at the forefront of the nation’s space exploration mission.(1)

Today, with the aid of NASA’s average budget of $15.818 billion dollars per year, it supports the whole spectrum of the agency’s crucial work:

- propulsion, engineering, science, space operations, and project and program management.

But what do they seek to accomplish?

According to the NASA statement:

“The answer to that question hasn’t changed in 50 years: discoveries that increase our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it; improve our ability to safely live and work in space; and deliver practical breakthroughs here on Earth that protect the planet and improve life for all humanity.”(2)

One practical breakthrough here on Earth may result from one of NASA’s more recent space exploration missions, the Phoenix Mars Mission.  Launched in August 2007, the Phoenix Mars Mission was the first in NASA’s Scout Program.  Phoenix is designed to study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian Arctic’s ice-rich soil.(3)

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. However, the University of Arizona reported;

“The mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.”(4)

Is perchlorate ‘potentially toxic’ for fetal development in larger organisms such as humans?

Let’s take a closer look.

On Earth, perchlorate is manufactured in large quantities as ammonium perchlorate, primarily for use as an oxidizer in solid rocket propellants. It is also used in fireworks, batteries, and automobile air bags. It occurs naturally in small concentrations in nitrate deposits in Chile and has been found in fertilizers derived from these deposits. (5)

According to The US government Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry;

  • Perchlorates enter the environment where rockets are made, tested, and taken apart.
  • Perchlorates also enter the environment from fireworks, road safety flares, and through the use and disposal of consumer products such as bleach where perchlorate may be contained as an impurity. There is also evidence that there are natural sources of perchlorates in the environment.
  • Factories that make or use perchlorates may also release them to soil and water.
  • Perchlorates will not stay in soil and will wash away with rain water.
  • Perchlorates will eventually end up in ground water.
  • We do not know exactly how long perchlorates will last in water and soil, but the information available indicates that it is a very long time.(6)

A 2005 study by Dr. Nancy Carrasco, professor of molecular pharmacology at Texas Tech University, suggests that breastfed babies ingest levels of perchlorate that exceed the ‘safe dose’ recently established by the National Academy of Science—putting children at risk for development damage.

“Our study suggests that high levels of perchlorate may pose a particular risk to infants. Nursing mothers exposed to high levels of perchlorate in drinking water may not only provide less iodide to their babies, but their milk may actually pass on perchlorate, which could further deprive the infants’ thyroid glands of iodide. The thyroid requires iodide to synthesize the hormones T3 and T4 that are essential for normal development of the central nervous system. Babies who don’t make enough of these thyroid hormones may become mentally impaired.”

California state agencies have discovered perchlorate in more than 400 water sources since 1997, including the Colorado River and hundreds of municipal wells. The bulk of the contamination was caused by the military, aerospace contractors and other users and manufacturers of explosive chemicals.(7)


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood mental impairment disorders estimated to affect approximately 1 in 20 children (8)  or 3.3 million people in USA (9) and can continue through adolescence and adulthood.

Symptoms include;

  • difficulty staying focused and paying attention
  • difficulty controlling behavior, and
  • hyperactivity (over-activity).

Some children with ADHD also have other illnesses or conditions. For example, they may have one or more of the following:

  • A learning disability. A child in preschool with a learning disability may have difficulty understanding certain sounds or words or have problems expressing himself or herself in words. A school-aged child may struggle with reading, spelling, writing, and math.
  • Oppositional defiant disorder. Kids with this condition, in which a child is overly stubborn or rebellious, often argue with adults and refuse to obey rules.
  • Conduct disorder. This condition includes behaviors in which the child may lie, steal, fight, or bully others. He or she may destroy property, break into homes, or carry or use weapons. These children or teens are also at a higher risk of using illegal substances. Kids with conduct disorder are at risk of getting into trouble at school or with the police.
  • Anxiety and depression. Treating ADHD may help to decrease anxiety or some forms of depression.
  • Bipolar disorder. Some children with ADHD may also have this condition in which extreme mood swings go from mania (an extremely high elevated mood) to depression in short periods of time.
  • Tourette syndrome. Very few children have this brain disorder, but among those who do, many also have ADHD. Some people with Tourette syndrome have nervous tics and repetitive mannerisms, such as eye blinks, facial twitches, or grimacing. Others clear their throats, snort, or sniff frequently, or bark out words inappropriately.

ADHD also may coexist with a sleep disorder, bed-wetting, substance abuse, or other disorders or illnesses.(10)

Scientists are not sure what causes ADHD, although many studies suggest that genes play a large role. Like many other illnesses, ADHD probably results from a combination of factors. In addition to genetics, researchers are looking at possible environmental factors, and are studying how brain injuries, nutrition, and the social environment might contribute to ADHD.(11)

Any evidence linking perchlorate to ADHD?

The Environment California Research & Policy Center says exposure to perchlorate during specific and important windows of time during the growth and development of a child, increases the risk of neurodevelopmental disability.(12)

Neurodevelopmental disabilities, like attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are a serious and growing problem in California.  Learning-disabled students increased 65 percent faster than the general school population from 1985 to 1999. Perchlorate exposure could be contributing to this trend in combination with exposure to a variety of other chemicals polluting the environment, such as toxic flame retardants, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently documented widespread perchlorate contamination in milk and lettuce from grocery stores in California and across the country. Many water suppliers in California have detected perchlorate in their wells at levels suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as unsafe.(13)


Nearly twice as many children are diagnosed with ADHD in Alabama, the location of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, than in California.

So is there any evidence of perchlorate in Alabama?

  • Groundwater

In 2008, 598 of 826 samples detected perchlorate from 0.01 to 2,600,000 ppb (parts per billion).  In 2007, 219 of 243 detected perchlorate from 0.1 to 80,000 ppb. Prior to 2007, samples were collected from several sites where activities such as rocket motor research and development, manufacturing, testing, and demilitarization activities have occurred. Of the 2,747 samples, the highest detection of perchlorate was 220,000 ppb near the rocket fuel research and development, manufacturing, and testing operations. In addition, 91 of 312 groundwater samples were taken from off-site wells to determine if perchlorate had migrated from the site. Perchlorate was detected ranging from 1.7 ppb to 59 ppb.

  • Sediment

In 2008, 42 samples reported no detection. In 2007, seven samples reported no detection. Prior to 2007, 6 of 24 samples drawn near activities with the highest perchlorate use at the arsenal (i.e., rocket motor research and development, testing, and manufacturing) detected perchlorate.

  • Soil

In 2008, 370 of 833 samples detected perchlorate up to 17 ppb. In 2007, 291 of 543 samples detected perchlorate up to 38 ppb. Prior to 2007, samples were collected from areas with historical perchlorate use. Of the 2,630 samples tested, the highest detection of perchlorate was 280,000 ppb.

  • Spring

In 2008, 27 of 43 samples detected perchlorate from 0.02 to 240 ppb.

  • Surface Water

In 2008, 89 of 91 samples detected perchlorate from 0.01 to 250 ppb. In 2007, three samples reported no detection. Prior to 2007, 67 of 390 samples collected at various locations downstream from areas of perchlorate use detected perchlorate from 0.08 to 4,800 ppb.(14)

In a draft risk assessment made in 2002, the EPA suggested that levels higher than 1 part per billion (ppb) pose a health risk. In contrast, the Defense Department contended that perchlorate at 200 ppb has no lasting effect on humans.

After 12 years of reviews, the EPA has concluded that because women of childbearing age and the developing fetus are the most sensitive receptors for perchlorate exposures, more stringent guidelines, as opposed from those initiated by EPA in its 1999 interim guidance policy, need to be implemented.

On 08/12/2011, the EPA issued a statement inviting small businesses, governments, and not-for-profit organizations to participate as small entity representatives (SERs) for a small business advocacy review (SBAR) Panel. This panel will focus on the agency’s development of a rule that proposes to regulate the amount of perchlorate in drinking water.(15)

The EPA has determined that perchlorate meets the Safe Drinking Water Act’s three criteria for regulating a contaminant.

  • First, perchlorate may have adverse health effects. Scientific research indicates that perchlorate can disrupt the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development.
  • Second, there is a substantial likelihood that perchlorate occurs frequently at levels of health concern in public water systems–monitoring data show more than four percent of public water systems have detected perchlorate.
  • Finally, there is a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for the between 5.2 million and 16.6 million people who may be served drinking water containing perchlorate.

The panel will include federal representatives from the Small Business Administration, the Office of Management and Budget, and the EPA. The panel members ask a selected group of SERs to provide advice and recommendations on behalf of their company, community, or organization to inform the panel members about the potential impacts of the proposed rule on small entities.

How will this affect NASA?

If, in the future, the agency cannot use perchlorate in rocket fuel, how’s it going to continue its trips to Mars and conduct other space explorations? It may even have its $15 billion dollars budget funding reduced.

Perhaps NASA will spare a thought for ‘Life on Earth’, and divert some of its funding into cleansing the water in its own neighborhood and beyond.

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