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Competitive Enterprise Institute
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Comments to the Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology
National Research Council
Updating the 1999 Arsenic in Drinking Water Report
Project Identification Number: BEST-K-01-01-A
May 21, 2001
This afternoon, I make these comments as a citizen who understands the critical impact that science has on public policy and how that ultimately affects our health and overall well-being. While the National Research Council’s (NRC) role is not to focus on public policy, it does have the very important responsibility of ensuring that it maintains the highest standards of science. If it fails in that responsibility, the resulting public policy may actually prove harmful. Unfortunately, the NRC’s 1999 report on arsenic failed to uphold the highest standards of science, and public health may suffer if the upcoming review does not address that problem.
There are many reasons for the public to be concerned about the NRC’s handling of the arsenic issue and its 1999 report. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (and its affiliates) is regarded by the public as, perhaps, the best scientific research organization in the country. Accordingly, taxpayer dollars often support your work because lawmakers hope that you will bring expertise and objectivity into the policy process. Yet the 1999 NRC report on arsenic appears to be more of a political document than one upholding the standards of science.
The report notes numerous problems with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) data and urges the agency to make changes before conducting a new risk assessment. But rather than simply focusing on such needed improvements, the report goes beyond a scientific review. Today, I would like to point out two areas in the NRC report that are particularly troubling.
First, the report’s executive summary suggests that the 50 ppb standard is not protective of public health. Yet that conclusion appears to be at odds with the report itself. The report notes that the agency needs to make many changes to the data to make it more realistic, and it explicitly states that the NRC report should not serve as a risk assessment. If the data is flawed and the report does not constitute a new risk assessment, then how can the NRC draw that conclusion? It is even more curious when you consider the fact that the report also notes: “No human studies of sufficient statistical power or scope have examined whether consumption of arsenic in drinking water at the current MCL results in the incidence of cancer or noncancer effects.”
Public confidence in the scientific process is further undermined when we read in the news that NRC panel members eventually admitted that this statement was really the result of political pressures rather than scientific findings. In a transcript to the EPA’s Office of Congressional Intergovernmental Affairs, members explicitly stated that they felt pressured into issuing this strong recommendation. For example, one panelist went as far as to note: “Conclusions cited in the Executive Summary are much stronger than the data support.” Another said: “There was pressure to not come forward with findings that were less than conclusive.”
The second issue that I would like to address relates to the section on statistical analysis. It is not clear to me why the NRC would need to run models using data it says are flawed. If the It doesn’t make sense to me to run models and make risk estimates, and then turn around and say that the estimates are not valid. Given the reputation of the NAS and the NRC, such risk estimates carry weight in the policy community and were likely be used by the agency and others to push a policy agenda – even though the report explicitly states that they not be used that way. I would think that the NRC would be well aware of such pitfalls, and hence would have chosen to explain the models without running the numbers with the poor data.
Unfortunately, the EPA appears to have been swayed by the section on statistical analysis, despite NRC warnings against relying on this chapter for risk assessment figures. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) notes: “the agency might have taken the modeling activity in the NRC report as prescriptive despite the NRC comments about possible limitations in the existing knowledge base and their intention that their efforts be seen as illustrative and not as actual risk assessments. … [The EPA] did not conduct the formal risk assessment integrating additional factors called for by the NRC.”
But what is even more disconcerting is that the NRC chose to include a figure that was pure speculation in this chapter and then to highlight it in the executive summary – elevating its importance. The report says that assuming all speculated cancer risks were true and applying those speculations to a certain statistical model “could easily result in a combined cancer risk on the order of 1 in 100.”  The report did not even run a model to find this number. Members of the NRC panel should have known that this figure would be misused and therefore, it was very irresponsible to include such speculation. In fact, EPA officials, politicians, and environmental activists have been able to use this figure to hype fears about arsenic, and hence bolster efforts to promote a very restrictive standard.
Given this disappointing history, the NRC should do its utmost to insulate the next review from political influences. To that end, the NRC may want to consider not reappointing any of the members from the committee that produced the 1999 report, particularly since they will have an interest in defending their prior review rather than simply reevaluating the issue. The committee should be balanced with members holding a variety of viewpoints and each with credentials in this field of research.
The committee should also be instructed to not focus on building a political consensus for report findings or determining a policy for the administration. They should focus on the scientific issues and should apply all the scientific standards of the National Academy of Sciences.
Because the committee has failed to uphold the highest standards in the past, one group of scientists has called for a Presidential commission to study the issue. They point out that the current approach seems to have fallen apart and hence, such a commission may indeed be necessary if the NRC does not address these very serious problems.
Director of Risk and Environmental Policy
Competitive Enterprise Institute
 Transcripts from phone conversations between the EPA Office of Intergovernmental Relations and NRC drinking water panel members, 1999.
 SAB, Arsenic Proposed Drinking Water Regulation, 26.
 NRC, Arsenic in Drinking Water, 264-298, see page 293 and 8.
 Chuck Fox, “Arsenic and Old Laws,” New York Times, March 22, 2001, A25; Fox was EPA Assistant Administrator for Water during the Clinton Administration.
 Eric Olson, Testimony Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials Hearing, Drinking Water Needs Infrastructure, March 28, 2001; http://www.house.gov/commerce/hearings/03282001-127/Olson193.htm.