Arsenic everywhere, and Bush is not helping

May 14, 2001|By Erik Olson

WASHINGTON -- Got milk? You'd better. Since the Bush administration has announced it will suspend a safe arsenic standard, you may want to think twice before drinking water.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tens of millions of Americans drink tap water containing arsenic at levels that pose significant health risks. Yet the Bush administration wants to delay action to address the problem.

After decades of debate, EPA in January finally lowered the allowable level of arsenic in tap water to 10 parts per billion (ppb). This standard is more stringent than the current standard of 50 ppb, an outdated level established in 1942 before arsenic was known to cause cancer.

The Bush administration said on April 23 that it will suspend this rule until at least 2002 and is considering doubling the January standard. It also intends to suspend a requirement that water companies tell consumers details about arsenic in their tap water.

Many health and environmental experts have been advocating a level of three ppb, and in June EPA proposed a five ppb standard. Bowing to industry pressure, however, the agency opted for the 10 ppb standard, the same level adopted by the World Health Organization and the European Union. Many water utilities, including their largest trade association, endorsed the 10 ppb standard last year.

But in March the Bush EPA suddenly reversed course. Explaining its new stance, EPA Administrator Christine Whitman said, "I want to be sure that the conclusions about arsenic in the rule are supported by the best available science."

In fact, scores of independent scientific studies conducted over the years have confirmed that arsenic in drinking water causes several kinds of cancer and other diseases.

In 1999, a definitive study by the National Academy of Sciences found that drinking water at the current 50 ppb standard "could easily" result in a total fatal cancer risk of one in 100 -- that's a cancer risk 100 times higher than EPA allows for other water contaminants. The academy said children could be more vulnerable to arsenic than adults, and recommended that the standard be reduced "as promptly as possible."

Why would the Bush administration suspend a rule strengthening the outdated 59-year-old arsenic standard that experts consider to be hazardous to human health?

The reason is not the science or even careful study. Ms. Whitman has stated that she spent "about an hour and a half" reviewing the matter. The administration primarily cites economics to justify its decision. But according to EPA, the cost of removing arsenic from water would be $3 per month or less for 90 percent of Americans who would benefit from lower arsenic levels in their water.

The administration's decision likely has more to do with the economics of political campaigns. Mr. Bush received more money from the mining industry than any other federal candidate last year. While arsenic occurs naturally, it also is a byproduct of mining and other industries. U.S. industries release more than 36 million pounds of arsenic into the environment every year.

President Bush's move to block a safer arsenic standard for drinking water represents an irresponsible capitulation to the mining industry and other special interests, which care more about profit margins than public health. This decision -- based on politics, not science -- serves as yet another example of the concerted effort to roll back our nation's environmental safeguards.

Erik Olson is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC sued the EPA in February 2000 for failing to update the 1942 standard for arsenic in tap water.

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