The Bush administration will adopt tighter arsenic standards first proposed just hours before former President Clinton left office, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman announced on October 31.
Whitman seeks more science
In March, the Bush administration was hammered by the mainstream media when it announced it would withdraw Clinton’s 11th-hour rules regarding arsenic in public drinking water supplies. On April 18, Whitman elaborated on the decision, indicating she would seek a postponement of the new rule until February 2002, giving the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) time to conduct and review new arsenic studies.
Whitman subsequently announced in July that EPA was seeking public comment on a 20 parts per billion (ppb) standard, rather than the 10 ppb proposed by Clinton. Whitman’s announcement seemed to indicate a developing compromise, accepting drastically lower arsenic levels but not quite the 80 percent reduction proposed by the Clinton administration.
The NAS released results of a new study in September 2001, proclaiming the risks of cancer and other health hazards related to arsenic were “more hazardous than earlier thought.” As a result, Whitman announced EPA would adopt the Clinton standard.
Existing standard in place for 60 years
Most of the arsenic found in water supplies has entered through natural processes. The current arsenic standard, which has been in place since 1942, allows 50 ppb in drinking water. However, after studies showed an increase in cancer risks to persons exposed to extremely high levels of arsenic for prolonged periods of time, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1999 recommended the standard be revised downward “as quickly as possible.”
Many scientists disagreed with the recommendation, noting the NAS studies focused on unusually severe and prolonged arsenic exposure. The research did little to cast doubt on the less-stringent arsenic standard mandated by current law, the scientists contended.
The NAS did not recommend a specific new arsenic level, but the Clinton administration announced an 80 percent reduction, from 50 ppb to 10 ppb, on the final night of Clinton’s presidency.
The Clinton proposal was particularly troublesome to western states, where arsenic occurs naturally in drinking water supplies at much higher levels than elsewhere in the country. Research has concluded many rural towns would be bankrupted if officials attempted to meet the new federal standards. Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association has estimated it could cost as much as $4.5 billion to build sufficient arsenic treatment units throughout the country, and another $20 million per year to operate them.
Criticism from all directions
In announcing her decision to adopt the Clinton proposal, Whitman explained, “I said in April that we would obtain the necessary scientific and cost review to ensure a standard that fully protects the health of all Americans, and we did that, and we are reassured by all of the data that significant reductions are necessary. As required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, a standard of 10 ppb protects public health based on the best available science and ensures that the cost of the standard is achievable.”
For the past two decades, EPA’s maximum acceptable level of risk for all water contaminants has been one death in 10,000. The September 2001 NAS report concluded that even a 10 ppb standard would result in 30 deaths per 10,000 people. A 3 ppb standard, NAS concluded, would reduce that number to between four and 10 deaths per 10,000 people.
Taking her cue from the NAS study, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) immediately called for EPA to further reduce the maximum allowable arsenic level to 3 ppb. However, “I think right now people will accept the 10 parts per billion, and that will be the standard,” stated House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Michigan).
Boxer also criticized the Whitman EPA after it “wasted all this time for nothing. They should have left the Clinton standard in place.”
“I don’t see how anyone can fault her for getting the best possible science to justify the decision,” countered Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York). He observed that Whitman still intends to meet the Clinton administration’s 2006 implementation goal, so no time was in fact wasted in implementing the 10 ppb standard.
“Problematic in rural America”
Mike Keegan, an analyst for the National Rural Water Association, went further, questioning the soundness of the NAS science. He asserted there remains “an incredible amount of uncertainty” regarding the NAS studies. So long as such uncertainty exists, stated Keegan, local communities should be allowed to determine for themselves how much arsenic they choose to filter from their water.
Keegan pointed out that 56,000 of the nation’s 60,000 community water systems are already compliant with the 10 ppb standard. The remaining 4,000 systems will be forced to bear their own costs for expensive new equipment, yet these systems serve an average of fewer than 10,000 people each.
“It’s going to be real problematic in rural America,” stated Keegan. “It won’t be uncommon to see $500-a-year rate increases.
Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, agreed that arsenic standards should be decided by each local community. Even if the NAS findings are accurate, noted Taylor, $500 per year is a hefty price for low-income Americans to pay to partially address what is already a minimal health risk.
“For many people,” Taylor points out, “$500 dollars per year is the difference between decent food, clothing, and shelter and poor food, clothing, and shelter; the difference between carrying decent health insurance and going without health insurance; the difference between having disposable monthly income and having no disposable monthly income. Individuals and individual communities, rather than the Washington bureaucracy, are best suited to determine whether $500 per month is a worthwhile price to pay for whatever marginal benefit the new standard provides.”
Cass Sunstein, a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, supported the free-market analysis offered by Keegan and Taylor. “Safety is a matter of degree, and if safer water quality is very expensive, then poor people are better off without it.
“Cars should certainly be safe,” continued Sunstein, “but rich people are more likely than poor people to buy Volvos. It would not be a good idea for the government to force poor people to buy Volvos, and the reason is that if you are poor, you might reasonably use what money you have on something other than adding an additional margin of safety to your car. Perhaps you will use that money on food, or medical care, or shelter.
“The same is true for water quality. If the consequence of decreasing risks is to significantly decrease family income for poor people, then it is perfectly legitimate for the government to refuse to act.”