Why the arsenic standard should not be changed

Published October 1, 2001

A strange thing happened in the last days of the Clinton administration: The Environmental Protection Agency rushed to set a new arsenic drinking water standard.

For the previous eight years of the Clinton administration, and the 30 years of the EPA era, the existing arsenic standard was not deemed in need of change. Suddenly, EPA calculates cancer risks from arsenic as high as 1 in 100. If the risks were real, more Americans would still die from arsenic than from all other regulation chemicals combined.

This is a classic example where the public is being told only half the story on an important issue. In fact, EPA has so completely perverted the science advice process and freedom of the press that a Presidential Commission on Arsenic–essentially a truth commission and now under consideration by the Bush administration–appears the only way out.

Insiders have known for 30 years that the arsenic standard is a living fossil within EPA’s regulatory structure, left over from a more reasonable regulatory epoch. The very existence of this standard contradicts everything EPA has been telling the public about cancer risk and the extreme measures EPA uses to regulate such risk.

A real danger . . . at high exposures

Arsenic can be a real cancer-causing chemical, one that has caused about 1,000 reported cases of real cancer worldwide, in addition to about 10,000 cases of non-cancerous skin disease. None of the other chemicals regulated at such extravagant cost can point to a single case of cancer that is unequivocally linked to a chemical, the way these 1,000 arsenic cancers are. But all these cancers occurred in a small number of outbreaks where arsenic levels greatly exceeded 250 ppb.

Where are EPA’s statistically calculated cancer deaths at low levels? According to EPA’s numbers, there should be at least a million cases of arsenic cancer at the regulated level in the United States, and hundreds of millions worldwide–but none has ever been reported. And it is not that these cancers are difficult to detect; quite the contrary. Even in Third World nations, arsenic cancer has been promptly identified wherever it occurred.

Has EPA bothered to investigate this astounding mismatch between prediction and reality? If it did, it has not told the public.

History of arsenic regulation

Being the only real environmental health and cancer risk, arsenic has been regulated for 100 years now (other real cancer risks like heavy smoking, sunburning, and the atom bomb are not regulated by EPA).

The first outbreak of arsenic poisoning to be officially investigated occurred in England at the end of the nineteenth century. Cheap beer had been tainted with arsenic by a complicated route: Brewers had “stretched” expensive malt with cheaper sugar. But the yeast could not metabolize sucrose into alcohol, unless it had first been “converted” into a mixture of glucose and fructose with a little sulfuric acid. The acid was contaminated with arsenic, and so eventually was the cheap beer.

A few hundred people became sick, enough for a Royal Commission to be appointed to investigate. Compared with the many National Academy panels of our time that have assessed cancer risk under EPA’s oversight, this Royal Commission really wanted to find out what happened.

Within a short time, they had identified arsenic as the culprit and estimated the minimum level to cause disease near 250 ppb (they still used grains per imperial gallon as measuring units). With a suitable safety margin, this eventually became the drinking water standard first in Great Britain, then in many American states and almost all countries around the world. Since 1942, it has been the federal arsenic standard set by the U.S. Department of Health.

Quite different are the 10 or so reports by various National Academy panels that have assessed cancer risk under EPA supervision. In 20 years, those panels have neglected to report that the safe level estimated by the Royal Academy has been fully confirmed in five subsequent outbreaks of arsenic poisoning from drinking water that affected much greater numbers of people.

Today, junk science reigns

Science and science advice have fundamentally changed since the Royal Commission. Congress has given EPA huge powers, including a $600 million science budget with practically no oversight.

EPA used that power to aggressively invest in official, government-sponsored junk science to create support for its so-called Risk Assessment and its fundamental assumption that cancer risk extends to very low levels of exposure. Scientists who made careers participating in this government-sponsored junk science were invited to be panelists in the official science advice. Critics were ignored at first, and later simply kept out altogether.

After 30 years of unrestrained corruption, the field of environmental health science is in a state of disrepute that has no precedent in history, with a 1997 peer-reviewed article questioning the veracity of the official science advice.

All this is now coming to a head over arsenic. The case against junk science is particularly powerful here. At the same time, EPA is pulling out all the stops in an all-out battle to defend its prerogative to regulate with junk science.

EPA does not bear all the blame, or even most of it. After all, it was Congress that created EPA in 1970 and sent it on a mission to regulate in the spirit of the then-recently enacted Delaney Amendment–which made irrationality, namely the unsupported fear of traces of chemicals, the official government policy.

In 1996, Congress quietly repealed this irrational amendment when it became clear it would require that all pesticides be banned. But Congress has not come clean with the public and has not owned up to a colossal mistake. Most importantly, Congress has not told the public that with the Delaney Amendment repealed, EPA’s mission itself must be reevaluated.

It is Congress that bears responsibility for legislating irrationality back in 1958. But EPA must be held responsible for covering up this enormous policy failure under a cloud of misleading science advice.

Independent science panel called for

To correct this misleading advice and allow the truth to emerge, the Risk Policy Center has petitioned President George W. Bush to appoint a Presidential Commission on Arsenic. Supporters and critics of EPA would offer their interpretations of the best available science. A retired judge would preside and make sure that scientific standards alone, and not political power, would define what is and is not the best available science.

The petition has the backing of the State of New Mexico; City of Scottsdale, Arizona; Village of Frankfort, Illinois; City of Fallon, Nevada; Village of Polk, Nebraska; Green Valley Water Company; Pima County Medical Society; the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons; Doctors for Disaster Preparedness; and the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.

The existing arsenic standard is safe and should not be changed. The American public must be allowed to hear the best available science. It is EPA’s routine use of junk science that has created chaos and disrepute; it needs attention now.

Gerhard Stöhrer is president of the Larchmont, New York-based Risk Policy Center. The Center is motivated by its members’ sense of civic duty to end the routine use of junk science in regulation.