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Despite the reams of evidence that already support minimizing the risk of arsenic in drinking water, the Bush administration has decided to launch a new round of scientific studies on the acceptable levels of the toxic substance. Environmental groups charge that delaying the new arsenic standard for further study will unnecessarily endanger U.S. citizens.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman announced that the EPA is asking the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to perform an expedited review of potential drinking water standards for arsenic, ranging from three to 20 parts per billion. The current standard, set in 1942, is 50 parts per billion - five times higher than the international standard adopted several years ago by the World Health Organization and the European Union.
The NAS has already determined that 50 parts per billion is too high. A definitive 1999 report by the NAS, which linked a host of health problems to arsenic in drinking water, recommended prompt revision of the EPAs arsenic standard to protect the publics health.
The NAS said that drinking water at the current EPA standard "could easily" result in a total cancer risk of one in 100 - about a 10,000 times higher cancer risk than EPA would allow for carcinogens in food.
Environmental and public interest groups argued for a new arsenic standard of three ppb. The EPA proposed a five ppb standard in June 2000, then increased it to 10 ppb in January 2001 in response to industry pressure.
Now the NAS is being asked to look at new studies regarding health effects that were received after the previous comment period closed, and to review EPAs risk analysis of arsenic. The EPA says the new standard, once established, will require compliance by 2006 - the same time that EPAs previous proposal was scheduled to go into place.
"The Bush Administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Whitman said. "Today we are taking action to ensure that a standard will be put in place in a timely manner that provides clean, safe and affordable drinking water for the nation and is based on the best science."
"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 added. "This is precisely what we are doing today."
As part of an independent review, Whitman will convene a subgroup of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council to review the economic issues associated with a standard, and ask EPA staff to prepare a new proposal for public comment.
"Many smaller water systems and the communities they serve may have to absorb additional costs to meet the new standard," Whitman said. "We want to make sure those costs are fair and fully justified. A new standard will not be fully protective of the health of Americans unless we make the proper plans now to ensure that all drinking water systems will be able to meet it."
But a host of groups are strongly critical of the Bush administrations move to delay and potentially alter the 10 ppb rule passed by the Clinton administration.
Physicians for Social Responsibility said the new studies "will undoubtedly confirm what science has already shown: there is no safe amount of this well known toxin."
For example, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry placed arsenic at the very top of its 1999 priority list of the top 20 hazardous substances.
"There is no safe level of arsenic," said Dr. Robert Musil, executive director and CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "A mountain of existing research - including a new report on the dangers of low levels of exposure published just last month - shows that the safest standard the United States can adopt is the lowest one: three parts per billion."
Musil called the cost-benefit analysis cited by Whitman in delaying the rule "flawed," because it assessed only the dangers posed by arsenic for bladder cancer. Arsenic is known to cause cancers of the skin and lung, and there is evidence that it increases the risk for cancers of the kidney, liver, colon and prostate. Arsenic has also been linked to heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
In February, a team of Dartmouth Medical School announced that arsenic may act as an hormone disrupter, helping to explain why chronic exposure to low levels of arsenic increases the risk of certain diseases.
And today, the EPA announced that a team of scientists at EPAs Office of Research and Development laboratory in North Carolina have discovered a possible direct link between arsenic exposure and DNA damage.
The research demonstrates that a human cells responses to arsenic exposure produce compounds that cause genetic damage. The study, titled "Trivalent methylated arsenic species are genotoxic," was published in the April 16 issue of "Chemical Research in Toxicology."
"The National Academy of Sciences has concluded based on the threat of bladder cancer alone that the 50 ppb standard for arsenic in drinking water is not protective of human health and should be reduced as promptly as possible," said Musil. "If the new study requested by EPA today includes the myriad health threats from arsenic, it can only point to the lowest technologically feasible standard, three parts per billion."
"This further delay in updating a nearly 60 year old standard for arsenic in drinking water is unhealthy and unacceptable," agreed Grant Cope, Staff Attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "This decision means more delay of the publics right to know about arsenic in our drinking water; more delay in setting tougher clean up standards; and more delay in the health benefits the public would enjoy by reducing levels of cancer causing poison in drinking water. They should issue the current standard now and work to strengthen it later."
The Sierra Club charged the Bush administration with caring more about the mining industry - one of the largest artificial sources of arsenic contamination in drinking water - than the health of the American public.
"By ignoring decades of study and considering doubling the amount of arsenic allowed in our water, President Bush is making an unsafe, irresponsible decision that pleases the mining industry at our families expense," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Clubs executive director. "If President Bush hadnt caved to the mining industry, we would be on the road to protecting Americans at the standard recommended by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1962. But instead, President Bushs proposal could double Americans cancer risk from arsenic in their drinking water," if the administration opts for a 20 ppb standard.