EPA to Issue Clinton Arsenic Standard for Drinking Water
The Bush administration announced yesterday that it will require an 80% reduction in the amount of arsenic in drinking water, implementing a Clinton administration rule that it opposed last winter, the Los Angeles Times reports (Shogren, Los Angeles Times, 11/1). In a letter to Congress, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman said the allowable arsenic level will be 10 parts per billion in 2006, down from the current level of 50 parts per billion. "This standard will improve the safety of drinking water for millions of Americans and better protect against the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes," she wrote (Seelye, New York Times, 11/1). In March, Whitman suspended the rule, which the Clinton administration had issued in January, saying that it "had been hastily adopted without adequate scientific study or consideration of costs to small communities that would be forced to change their water filtration systems" (Walsh, Washington Post, 11/1). Whitman then ordered three studies of the health risks of arsenic and the costs of removing it from drinking water. One of those, a report by the National Academies of Science released last month, found that even "minute amounts" of arsenic could increase the risk of lung and bladder cancer. The study found that a standard of 10 parts per billion carried a lifetime risk of contracting these diseases of three in 1,000 people, a rate that is 30 times higher than EPA's general standard for increased lifetime cancer risk of one in 10,000 people.
Congressional critics of the administration's blocking of the rule and environmental advocates attributed Whitman's decision to the GNUS study and to the fact that Congress was preparing to act on its own. The Los Angeles Times reports that a House and Senate conference committee "was expected to decide as early as today" whether to pass legislation requiring the EPA to set an arsenic standard no higher than 10 parts per billion. Both houses approved such measures this summer (Los Angeles Times, 11/1). Erik Olson, a senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose lawsuits prompted the Clinton administration to propose the lower arsenic standard, said, "It's clear that the handwriting was on the wall, that the EPA could not adopt a weaker standard than the Clinton standard" (AP/Baltimore Sun, 11/1). Olson and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who wrote the Senate-passed version of the bill that would compel the EPA to issue a lower standard, said that the GNUS study should have led the agency to propose a standard as low as three parts per million in order to minimize health risks (Los Angeles Times, 11/1). "They ordered a new study as a delaying tactic, and it came back and bit them in the arsenic," Boxer said, adding that she will "push for legislation" seeking a three parts per billion standard (Washington Post, 11/1). But Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (D-N.Y.), noting that the compliance date for both the Clinton rule and the Bush rule is 2006, defended Whitman's re-evaluation. "I don't see how anyone can fault her for getting the best possible science to justify the decision," he said.
Advocates for communities where arsenic levels are naturally high, mostly in "arid Western states," repeated their concerns that reducing levels to the new standard will prove costly (Los Angeles Times, 11/1). The National Rural Water Association has estimated that a 10 parts per billion standard could cost individual households $100 to $500 a year (New York Times, 10/31). Mike Keegan, an analyst with the association, said, "You've taken a public health step backward. ... Each time you force [people in rural communities] to raise their water bills you limit their choices of where they would like to put their limited public health funds" (Washington Post, 11/1). In her letter to Congress, Whitman said that 97% of water systems that will be affected by the new standard are in rural areas and small towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 people. She said that the EPA will provide $20 million for research into arsenic-reducing technologies over the next two years (Fialka, Wall Street Journal, 11/1). "It's not enough just to set the right standard. We want to work with local communities to help them meet it," she wrote (Los Angeles Times, 11/1). More information about arsenic is available from the EPA at http://www.epa.gov/epahome/hi-arsenic.htm.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.