EPA Calls for Review of Arsenic Drinking Water Standard
The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday plans to postpone until February a decision on a standard for the permissable amount of arsenic in drinking water, but agency officials said that a new rule would "definitely call for a reduction" of at least 60% from the current allowable level, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, the move "bears on one of the most politically delicate decisions" of the Bush administration -- a decision to "set aside, at least for now," a Clinton administration rule that would have reduced the arsenic standard by 80%, from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion (Jehl, New York Times, 4/19). The Wall Street Journal reports that EPA Administrator Christine Whitman has asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an "expedited review of the human health effects of arsenic levels between three and 20 parts per billion (Cummings, Wall Street Journal, 4/19). An NAS spokesperson said that the academy would complete the review in about four months, and Whitman aides predicted that the EPA would issue a new rule on the arsenic standard by Feb. 22, 2002, with provisions set to take effect in 2006 (New York Times, 4/19). "I have said consistently that we will obtain the necessary scientific review to ensure a standard that fully protects the health of all Americans, and that we will establish that standard in a timely manner," Whitman said, adding, "This is precisely what we are doing." EPA Associate Administrator Tina Kreisher said that the agency would "more than likely" use the NAS' recommendation as the new standard (Allen, Washington Post, 4/19). "In our minds (three to 20) has always been the range," she added (Watson/Keen, USA Today, 4/19).
Meanwhile, in a front page story, the Wall Street Journal chronicles the debate surrounding the standard for arsenic in drinking water. The Journal reports that "few government decisions could have been more thoroughly researched, over so many years, than the EPA's move to slash the allowable content of arsenic in U.S. drinking water by 80%" in the waning months of the Clinton administration, with federal regulators weighing dozens of studies on the issue -- including six reports by the "prestigious" National Research Council. However, "It took the Bush administration 58 days to shelve the new rule," the Journal reports. "We know arsenic is carcinogenic in people -- not just laboratory animals -- at exposure levels that aren't much higher than the current U.S. standard," Wilson said, adding, "The science is unequivocal." The Journal reports, however, "Not to everyone." Since 1990, companies that could face billions of dollars in additional costs under a lower arsenic standard have "cast doubts on the science," funding studies and "shelv[ing] results they didn't like." In addition, "[a]crimony" has "infected" the EPA, with researchers pointing out an "apparent conflict of interest" in senior EPA scientists collaborating on papers with industry consultants and helping to organize a biannual conference on arsenic partly funded by industry. Still, the Bush administration has "never" disputed that arsenic "is harmful to human health," but has asked, "How much arsenic in water does it take to give people cancer?" Arsenic has caused cancer among those "exposed to much higher levels" than the U.S. standard, but "hasn't proved particularly toxic" in animal tests, which industry consultants cite as evidence that arsenic "may not be harmful at all at the low exposure levels" in America. However, public health experts maintain that the EPA should establish "wide margins of public safety" for arsenic in drinking water, concluding, "Better safe than sorry" (Waldman, Wall Street Journal, 4/19).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.