Arsenic and Old Lies

From the April 2001 issue of CEI UpDate


From the April 2001 issue of CEI UpDate


Liberals would like you to believe that they’ve cornered the market on compassion. But George W. Bush has begun to prove them wrong by illustrating how the liberal regulatory agenda can exhibit callous disregard for the burdens it places on the poor.


Consider President Bush’s recent action on the arsenic drinking water standard. In his final days in office, Bill Clinton increased the stringency of this drinking water regulation, and Bush subsequently placed a hold on the rule to determine if it was scientifically justified.


Contrary to the screaming from the left, Bush’s action is the compassionate one. It will save Americans–particularly lower-income rural Americans–from having to trade off important public health needs in exchange for a standard that can’t guarantee a single benefit.


In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) warned the agency that if it set a standard that was too high, it could produce a net loss to public health. For example, high costs of the standard might make it difficult for some Americans to meet nutritional needs. High costs could also lead others to disconnect from their water supply systems to avoid paying for the regulations. In that case, consumers might access less safe sources of water from wells over even untreated surface waters.


In fact, even the EPA’s estimates–which water suppliers say underestimate the costs–indicate that the Clinton standard could have devastated some rural Americans. The EPA estimated that the Clinton standard could have cost up to $326 per household annually in towns with fewer than 100 water connections. But even families served by larger systems would feel some pain. In systems serving 100 to 100,000, annual per household costs could have reached up to an extra $162 a year.


While high costs are certain, benefits are speculative at best. Researchers have not been able to produce data showing that arsenic at levels present in US drinking water pose any risk. The Clinton rule is based on findings that relatively high-level exposure to arsenic for long-periods of time appears to have caused cancer in populations in several other nations, primarily among malnourished populations in Taiwan. Based largely on Taiwanese data, the EPA extrapolated risks of low-level arsenic exposures in drinking water to the US population.


But the Taiwanese data does not tell us much about risks in the United States. Differences between the populations make such comparisons very difficult. Differences include exposure levels in water, dietary intake of arsenic in food (the Taiwanese consume more arsenic in food than Americans), and genetics. In addition, the malnourished Taiwanese had considerable nutritional deficiencies not typical of the American population (deficiencies may increase the toxicity of arsenic). In addition, numerous confounding factors within the Taiwanese studies likely exaggerated risk estimates.


In comparison, a study on US populations in Utah exposed to levels of up to 200 parts per billion (ppb)–20 times higher than the Clinton standard–over decades failed to find health impacts. While the Utah study also has its limitations, it suggests that additional research is clearly needed.


Nonetheless, environmentalists insist that a report by the National Research Council (NRC)–an arm of the National Academy of Sciences–settled the issue in 1999. The report highlights problems with the state of the science on arsenic, and it is full of warnings urging caution in regard to applying Taiwanese data to estimate US risks. Yet the report’s executive summary added a peculiar twist. It stated that the panel believed the 50 ppb standard (which was in place before Clinton issued the rule) was not protective of public health and that EPA should take action.


But that recommendation appeared to be nothing more than political. Members of the NRC panel told officials at the EPA Office of Congressional Intergovernmental Relations (OCIR) that they felt pressured to make a strong policy statement. One panelist stated to the EPA OCIR: “Conclusions cited in the Executive Summary are much stronger than the data support.” In fact the body of the NRC report notes: “No human studies of sufficient statistical power or scope have examined whether consumption of arsenic in drinking water at the current MCL [current standard] results in the incidence of cancer or noncancer effects.”


Given such weak science and knowing the huge costs tightening the arsenic standard would have on American’s rural poor, George Bush’s postponement of the standard is a true act of compassion. But with liberals in Congress, the media, and environmentalists clamoring, hopefully Bush won’t sell out his share of the market on compassion.


Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at CEI, can be reached at [email protected].