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Great Lakes Article:

Arsenic Drinking Water Standard Issued
After Seven-Month Scientific Review, EPA Backs Clinton-Established Levels

By Edward Walsh
Article courtesy of the Washington Post
Thursday, November 1, 2001; Page A31

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 (D-Calif.).

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 systems.

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 per billion.

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 drinkers.

"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 standard."

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.

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