Make mine water, with arsenic

SUN JOURNAL

Standards: Nevada town prefers swilling chemical element in large doses to paying big bucks to remove it.

April 21, 2001|By Tom Gorman | Tom Gorman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLON, Nev. - This is how tough the folks are who live here: They make jokes about the arsenic they drink.

Fallon, population 8,300, calls itself "the Oasis of the Desert." But it's also the arsenic capital of America. A study of EPA data from 25 states by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2000 found that Fallon's water system delivered more arsenic to its customers than any other large system, defined as one serving at least 3,300 people.

And so last month, when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman rescinded a Clinton administration decision to reduce the allowable levels of arsenic in U.S. tap water by 80 percent, the folks here didn't blink an eye. Without complaint, generations of Fallon residents have been drinking water with arsenic levels twice as high as the old limit, and they don't want to pay for a $10 million treatment plant.

In 1975, the EPA set the maximum allowable amount of arsenic in tap water at 50 parts per billion. In his last week in office, President Bill Clinton, at the urging of scientists, public health doctors and others, ordered it reduced to 10 ppb. But Whitman said the decision needed further study, and so the standard was returned to 50 ppb. This week, the EPA said new rules to be announced by February would require a reduction in arsenic levels of at least 60 percent by 2006.

The EPA's delay of tougher standards came as a relief to many water agencies around the country that opposed the tougher standards because of the expense of building new treatment plants.

But that is hardly an issue here. In Fallon, about 50 miles east of Reno, water out of the faucet contains about 90 ppb of arsenic. Even before Clinton tried to lower the standard, Fallon was ordered by frustrated EPA officials to cut its arsenic levels in half by September 2003 or face fines of $27,500 a day.

EPA attorney Julie Walters said she knows of no other city in the United States that has resisted meeting the arsenic standards as much as Fallon.

"What's at stake," she says, "is the health of the people of Fallon."

State Assemblywoman Marcia DeBraga, whose district includes Fallon, wishes the city would address the arsenic problem without further delay.

"I don't know if they're in denial, or firmly believe that since Grandpa Jones drank it all his life it's not a serious problem," she says. "But they need to bite the bullet."

The city has grudgingly begun designing a treatment facility and is looking for ways to pay for it, perhaps through drastically increasing water rates. But it is frustrated that it doesn't know which arsenic level it ultimately will have to meet - 50 ppb or 10 ppb.

Whatever steps the city takes, they won't help residents just outside city limits who rely on private wells where the arsenic frequently reaches 700 ppb and, in some cases, more than 2,000 ppb.

Mayor Ken Tedford Jr. said there is no support among residents for the city to construct and operate a water treatment plant. Public meetings to discuss water quality go largely unattended.

The hot issue in town these days is not arsenic but the diagnosis in 1999 of nine Fallon children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, along with three others with the same diagnosis since 1997. The number of so-called childhood leukemia cases here is about 30 times the normal rate in the general population, and health experts are trying to determine why.

But there is little evidence to suggest that childhood leukemia is triggered by arsenic, says Dr. Randall Todd, the state epidemiologist.

Although the cases of leukemia are on everyone's mind here, arsenic remains accepted as a fact of life.

"Arsenic is no biggie," says Tim Miller, 46, a heavy-equipment operator and second-generation Fallon native. "I'll die of something. It's called life. Once you're born, you start dying."

Even residents who have been stricken with arsenic poisoning, or have skin cancer that may have been triggered by years of drinking arsenic-laced water, seem resigned.

Such is the case with Betty Anderson, 62, who in January was diagnosed with arsenic poisoning.

She and her husband, Curt, have lived in Fallon for 26 years. Two years ago, the couple moved to a new subdivision just outside of town. A year later, she fell ill with a dry, hacking cough and burning hands and feet, which she likened to the worst possible case of athlete's foot.

After arsenic poisoning was identified as the cause, tests of her well water showed it contained 770 ppb of the poison.

Within her family, Anderson drank the most water and was the only one stricken with arsenic poisoning. She immediately turned to bottled water, and follow-up tests show her body has been cleansed of most of the toxin. The burning sensation in her hands and feet is only about 10 percent what it was, she says, although she still suffers from nagging coughs that bring tears to her eyes.

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