When the news broke recently about federal researchers discovering a rocket fuel chemical in milk sold in Maryland and elsewhere, readers searching the Web sites of The Sun and other newspapers for information about perchlorate were directed to another site, called the "Truth About Perchlorate."
This Web site, with its prominently placed link paid for by a group called the Council on Water Quality, reassured readers that the low levels of the pollutant found by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "have no measurable effect on the body."
Regardless of whether that is true, the Council on Water Quality is not an environmental or scientific group. It's part of a public relations campaign by the nation's largest military contractor, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, and manufacturers of perchlorate, which are trying to minimize their costs to remove the pollutant from public water supplies.
Some environmentalists say the Council on Water Quality is one of a growing number of groups with misleading names - such as the Foundation for Clean Air Progress and the Annapolis Center for Science Based Public Policy - that use spin and industry-funded studies to twist public opinion and subvert government regulation.
"A lot of these groups sound like they're backed by Ralph Nader, but they're not consumer groups; they're actually fronts for corporations such as the drug and restaurant industries," said Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nonprofit that receives no corporate money.
Representatives of industry-funded groups say they are providing a public service by distributing accurate information to counter propaganda by leftist ideologues and trial lawyers.
"Our whole purpose is public education," said James Strock, a spokesman for the Council on Water Quality. "As the government moves toward regulation in this area, we just want to make sure the best possible science is applied."
Thomas Roskelly, spokesman for the Annapolis Center for Science Based Public Policy, an industry-funded nonprofit group, said some environmentalists put out alarmist misinformation that needs to be corrected.
His group receives some of its money from energy companies that own coal-fired power plants facing huge costs to reduce mercury pollution. The center's news releases play down the risks of eating mercury in fish, among other subjects.
"A little mercury in the water isn't all that bad; a little arsenic isn't all that bad. It's the dose that matters. ... Is industry interested in these positions? You bet they are. But the general public is interested too, because the solutions will cost taxpayers a heck of a lot of money," Roskelly said.
The effects on human health, if any, of the perchlorate reported in milk and lettuce by the FDA last month are a subject of intense debate. Some researchers say enough of it could cause thyroid malfunction and brain damage in children; others say it's harmless.
Perchlorate is a chemical that was widely used in rocket fuel and explosives during the Cold War by Lockheed Martin and the military. Large amounts of it were often dumped onto the ground, where it seeped into municipal water supplies, lettuce farms and pastures that fed dairy cows, said Bill Walker, a vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which has been studying the issue.
The National Academy of Sciences is expected to issue a report next month on whether the chemical poses a health hazard.
Local governments in California, Maryland, Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states have closed hundreds of public wells in which trace amounts of it were found.
In Maryland, Aberdeen shut four municipal wells in April 2003 because perchlorate used in Army explosives at Aberdeen Proving Ground had seeped into public drinking water.
Advocates for the defense industry say Lockheed has done nothing deceptive by funding the public relations campaign. But when people open the Council On Water Quality Web site, there's nothing to indicate that it's connected to perchlorate makers and users.
When visitors click on the "about us" tab on the site, they learn that the council is supported by Lockheed, Aerojet, Kerr-McGee Chemical, the American Pacific Corp. and other members of the "Perchlorate Study Group."
But the Web site does not say that Lockheed and Aerojet, another defense contractor that makes missiles, are major users of the rocket fuel additive and that both are fighting lawsuits over perchlorate contamination in water supplies. The site also does not say that Kerr-McGee and American Pacific are past and current manufacturers of the chemical.
"I don't believe that it's misleading in any way," said Gail Rymer, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin. "It is disclosed on the Web site that this is an industry consortium, and this is a normal practice among industry."
Rymer said the company has a responsibility to help publicly dispute assertions by activists that low levels of perchlorate in water cause heath problems.
"By doing research, we have been able to determine there is not any adverse health effects from this chemical ... and it's important that people have access to this information," Rymer said.
The California Environmental Protection Agency disagrees, saying in a recent report: "Perchlorate is becoming a serious threat to human health and water resources."
Since 1997, Lockheed has spent $80 million conducting studies and cleaning and replacing contaminated municipal water systems around Redlands and Riverside, Calif., near where the company made missiles from 1961 to 1974, Rymer said.
The company expects to pay perhaps $180 million more over the next 20 years cleaning up perchlorate and other chemicals that seeped into underground water supplies, Rymer said.
The company could pay much more if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopts a proposed standard of one part per billion, or less if the EPA adopts a standard closer to the 200 parts per billion suggested by the Pentagon, Rymer said.
While the National Academy of Sciences and the EPA consider what a national standard should be, California has suggested a goal of no more than six parts per billion in water, and Maryland and Massachusetts suggest no more than one part per billion.
Milk sampled by the FDA in Maryland averaged about eight parts per billion perchlorate.
Gary Praglin, an attorney representing a group of about 400 people in the Redlands area that is suing Lockheed over thyroid disease, cancer and other health problems that they claim were caused by drinking contaminated water, said the Council on Water Quality is a part of a deceptive multimillion-dollar strategy to influence public opinion and skew science.
"The Council On Water Quality is a complete and total fraud," said Praglin, of the firm Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Los Angeles.
He said two scientists on the 15-member National Academy of Sciences panel studying perchlorate, Richard Bull and Charles Capen, have been paid to do research by Lockheed Martin or its surrogates. Bull resigned from the panel in June, but Capen remains.
Bill Skane, a spokesman for the National Academy of Sciences, said it wouldn't make sense for the panel to disqualify anyone who had performed research for Lockheed.
"It seems that some environmentalists think that to be pure enough, a scientist can't have done any work for the industry," said Skane. "But we need people who know something. It's always a balancing act."