Seven months after it set off a political firestorm by
suspending the Clinton administration's toughened standard
for acceptable levels of naturally occurring arsenic in
drinking water, the Bush administration announced yesterday
that it is adopting the same standard of 10 parts arsenic
per billion parts water.
In a letter to key congressional appropriations committee
members announcing the decision, Christine Todd Whitman,
administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,
said the standard "will improve the safety of drinking
water for millions of Americans and better protect against
the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes."
But administration critics greeted the announcement by
saying the EPA had no choice but to retain the 10-parts-per-billion
standard. They argued that a recent study commissioned
by the administration showed that it should have adopted
an even tougher standard of 3 parts per billion.
"They're moving in the right direction, but they did
it because they had no choice," said Sen. Barbara Boxer
Boxer and others said a National Academy of Sciences
study released in September concluded that an arsenic
standard of 10 parts per billion would produce a cancer
risk that far exceeds what the EPA considers acceptable.
"We think that obviously they recognized the writing
on the wall and decided to stick with 10 parts per billion
rather than follow the new science that shows they should
go below 10," said Erik D. Olson, a lawyer with the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
The EPA asked for the study in March when it suspended
one of the last acts of the Clinton administration, a
tightening of the long-standing federal standard for arsenic
levels in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to
10 parts per billion. Whitman said at the time that the
Clinton rule had been hastily adopted without adequate
scientific study or consideration of costs to small communities
that would be forced to change their water filtration
But suspension of the Clinton standard caused an uproar
and led to portrayals of the new Bush administration as
hostile to the environment, and Bush's job approval ratings
slipped significantly in public opinion surveys. The House
and the Senate later adopted measures requiring the administration
to adopt an arsenic standard of no more than 10 parts
Then came the National Academy of Sciences report, which
Olson said showed that a standard of 10 parts per billion
resulted in a cancer risk "far higher than anyone had
previously estimated." According to Olson, the study said
that exposure to water with arsenic levels of 10 parts
per billion is associated with a risk of 30 cancer deaths
per 10,000 people drinking the water, which would be 30
times the EPA's acceptable rate of one death per 10,000
"They ordered a new study as a delaying tactic, and it
came back and bit them in the arsenic," Boxer said.
But Mike Keegan, an analyst with the National Rural Water
Association, which he said represents 22,000 small communities
across the country, said there is "an incredible amount
of uncertainty" even about the National Academy of Sciences
report on arsenic levels and that, with such uncertainty,
the communities that will be directly affected should
be allowed to decide what is an acceptable level of arsenic
in their drinking water.
Keegan predicted that the tougher standard will lead
to substantial increases in water charges in many towns,
as they purchase improved filtration systems. "You've
taken a public health step backward," he said. "All of
these people have limited funds to pay for health costs.
Each time you force them to raise their water bills you
limit their choices of where they would like to put their
limited public health funds."
Boxer said she will push for legislation forcing the
EPA to adopt "the lowest level that is achievable" for
arsenic in drinking water. Olson said that is considered
to be 3 parts per billion.
House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) said he
was pleased the administration had done "what they should
have done months ago." He said there would be continued
battles over the issue but added, "I think right now people
will accept the 10 parts per billion, and that will be
The EPA said that water systems across the country will
have to be in compliance with the 10-parts-per-billion
standard by 2006. In her letter to Congress, Whitman said
that almost 97 percent of the water systems that will
be affected by the new standard serve fewer than 10,000
people each. She said the EPA plans to provide $20 million
during the next two years for research and development
of cost-effective technologies to help small water systems
meet the standard.
Arsenic occurs naturally in rocks, soil, water, air,
plants and animals. According to the EPA, international
studies have linked long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking
water to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal
passages, liver and prostate.