Report Finds That Even Low Levels of Arsenic Can Cause Cancer
Even "minute amounts" of arsenic in drinking water could lead to an increased risk of lung and bladder cancer, according to a new National Academy of Sciences study, which concludes that the substance is "more hazardous than earlier thought." In its "final days," the Clinton administration proposed a rule that would limit arsenic in drinking water to 10 parts per billion, after the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 recommended that the current federal standard of 50 parts per billion be reduced to 5 parts per billion. The new regulation, however, was delayed by the Bush administration in March after EPA Administrator Christine Whitman concluded that further study was needed and asked the NAS' National Research Council to "independently review the most recent findings about arsenic risk." After reviewing recent studies, the council concluded that people who daily drink water with three parts arsenic per billion get bladder or lung cancer at a rate of one in 1,000. The cancer rate for drinking water with 10 parts arsenic per billion increases to more than three in 1,000, according to the study. "The National Academy made it very clear that the scientific consensus is that low levels ... present very high cancer risks," Erik Olson, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, said last week. An EPA spokesperson said that the NAS report "absolutely raised more concern" about arsenic standards. The study also recommended that more research be conducted to evaluate other health risks posed by the substance in drinking water because some studies conducted overseas have found a connection to diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular problems and heart defects (Schoch, Los Angeles Times, 9/15). A National Research Council press release on the report is available at http://www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/isbn/0309076293?OpenDocument.
Saying that "no other developed nation" has an arsenic standard as high as 50 parts per billion, a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial urges the Bush administration to lower the standard to at least 10 parts per billion. The editorial states the White House could establish a grant program to assist the roughly 3,000 communities that would have trouble affording upgrades to their water systems in order to meet the new standard. The editorial concludes: "Rather than retreat from the Clinton standard, the [NAS] findings compel [the] EPA to go further in safeguarding public health" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/17). But reducing the arsenic standard to 10 parts per billion would involve costs that might not be worth any added benefit, Floyd Frost writes in a Washington Post op-ed. Frost, an epidemiologist with the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, says that lowering the standard could increase the water bill of residents in some cities from $10 to $40 per month, and those of rural community residents from $50 to $90 per month. In addition to the risk of transporting chemicals needed to remove arsenic from water, the EPA estimates that lowering the standard to 10 parts per billion would prevent between seven and 33 deaths per year at a cost of between $460,000 and $9.7 million per "year of life gained," Frost writes. He concludes: "We must ask whether we know enough about the health effects of low-dose arsenic to justify the enormous expense of removing it from drinking water" (Frost, Washington Post, 9/16).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.