UMass researcher helping the EPA to determine health effects of spent rocket fuel

search over the last eight years has focused on how contaminants in the environment disrupt the endocrine system. In recent years, his research has focused particularly on thyroid hormone, and its role in fetal brain development. "We know that thyroid hormone from the mother is essential for proper development of the fetal brain," Zoeller said. "We don't know when during gestation it comes into play, what it does, or how it works. But we do know that if a fetus can't make thyroid hormone, anything that happens to the mother's thyroid will affect the baby's brain."

Perchlorate blocks the thyroid gland's ability to concentrate iodine from the diet, and humans need iodine in order for their thyroid glands to work properly, explained Zoeller. In adults, the thyroid helps to regulate metabolism. In children, the thyroid plays a major role in growth and development, in addition to metabolism. Impairment of thyroid function in mothers may affect fetuses and nursing newborns, resulting in behavioral and learning disorders, such as lower IQ and attention deficit disorder.

"Even when we control for the improved tools we have to diagnose specific learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder, there is nevertheless a much higher incidence of them now compared to 20 or 30 years ago," said Zoeller. "This appears to be a real problem, and there's a great deal of concern that the problem is related to environmental contaminants."

In order to determine a safe level for perchlorate exposure, the EPA has asked 17 scientists, including Zoeller, to evaluate some 500 pages of information on the chemical. Scientists in disciplines ranging from immunology to genetics submitted their comments to the EPA in May; the agency is expected to publish a proposed safe level called a draft reference dose late this summer. Zoeller notes that the draft reference dose is an early step in a lengthy process to determine whether the agency should set a federal drinki

Contact: Elizabeth Luciano
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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