Local Budgets Reel Under Arsenic Mandates

Published April 1, 2007

The citizens of Middlefield, Ohio are being hammered by a staggering cost of $7,400 per household after water testing showed the community is very slightly above new, stringent federal standards regarding arsenic in water.

A flurry of late January news stories in the Ohio media indicated the problem is widespread, with officials in many communities protesting they cannot afford such staggering bills for building new water treatment plants that will likely have no effect on human health.

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the allowable percentage of arsenic, a naturally occurring chemical that makes its way into groundwater in microscopic concentrations, from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb in public water supplies.

With arsenic measuring 12 parts per billion in community water supplies–just two parts per billion over the new federal standards–Middlefield’s 1,000 households must foot the bill for a new $7.4 million water treatment plant.

EPA Underestimated Costs

According to EPA, a lifetime of exposure to high arsenic levels can lead people to a greater susceptibility to cancer in old age. EPA in 2001 justified its more stringent arsenic standards, which took effect in 2006, by asserting the new standards would save 21 to 30 premature deaths of older Americans nationwide per year.

EPA estimated it would cost U.S. communities a total of $3.62 billion over 20 years–or $7,240,000 per premature death–to implement the new standards.

Real-world data indicate EPA’s projections were overly optimistic.

The American Water Works Association Research Foundation estimates the new standards will cost $4.6 billion to $21.5 billion over 20 years. That represents $9.2 million to $43 million per avoided premature death.

“This is just another example of the enormously expensive and completely needless impacts of the arsenic rule,” said Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The cost of more than $7,000 per household to reduce arsenic standards by just two parts per billion is crazy, given that there will be no public health benefits of this move.”

Purposeless Regulation

For communities such as Middlefield, located in Geauga County 44 miles northeast of Cleveland, the marginal benefit of the new regulations seems very minor considering the cost of the new water treatment facility. Statistically, Middlefield is unlikely to see even a single premature death caused by its current arsenic levels.

Middlefield is not alone in paying a steep price for these statistically unlikely health benefits. The nearby communities of Chardon and Seville must also upgrade their water treatment facilities. The 3,000 households in the two communities will pony up a total of $9 million, or $3,000 per household, to reduce their arsenic levels by just a few parts per billion.

Health Officials Protest Rule

Ohio public health experts have taken note of the very limited health benefits expected from such expensive arsenic reduction projects.

Health problems “occur after a lifetime of exposure, not short term,” said Kathy Pinto of the Ohio EPA.

“No studies indicate that levels of 10, 20, 30 or even 50 parts per billion can cause adverse effects,” agreed Robert Frey of the Ohio Department of Health.

Citing a study of Utah residents who were exposed to extremely high levels of arsenic over an entire lifetime, “drinking arsenic with 100 and 150 parts per billion didn’t indicate any adverse health effects,” Frey added.

Pinto pointed out that until Middlefield’s new $7.4 million water treatment plant is built, citizens can reduce their arsenic intake simply by buying an inexpensive filter for their tap water.

All Cost, No Benefit

“Members of these communities will likely suffer considerably, as they will likely be forced to sacrifice other, pressing needs to pay for this rule,” said Logomasini.

“Unfortunately, arsenic is just the tip of the iceberg,” Logomasini added. “EPA is considering several more unreasonable standards, including a standard for radon, which is likely to levy even more steep costs on households around the nation in exchange for little verified public health benefits.”

“It is statistically unlikely that anybody in Middlefield will realize any health benefits from the new requirements,” agreed Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “Imposing a bill of $7,400 per household on the citizens of Middlefield is imposing real, measurable harm to Middlefield citizens. How many citizens will have to forgo health insurance or healthier but more expensive food as a result?

“EPA is overstating hypothetical, phantom risks while ignoring the real benefits that people would be able to accrue by keeping their own money,” Burnett added.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney practicing in Rochester, New York.