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#722 - Arsenic From Your Tap, 11-Apr-2001

by Rachel Massey*

President Bush has canceled a health regulation that would have
reduced allowable levels of arsenic in U.S. drinking water from
50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. According to the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), arsenic in drinking water
causes cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder and prostate in
humans.[1] Arsenic in drinking water is also linked to
diabetes, cardiovascular disease, anemia, and disorders of the
immune, nervous and reproductive systems, EPA says.[1]
Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that arsenic even at very
low levels equivalent to 10 ppb in water interferes with
hormones, making it a potent endocrine disrupter. Hormones are
chemical messengers that the body produces to regulate critical
life processes.[2]

The current U.S. arsenic standard of 50 ppb was adopted in 1942.
After a decade of study and public review of scientific
evidence, EPA proposed the stricter standard while Bill Clinton
was president. Mr. Bush reversed EPA's decision shortly after
taking office.

Arsenic appears in two forms, organic and inorganic; in general,
the inorganic form is more dangerous. Inorganic arsenic occurs
naturally in some locales. In addition, at least six million
pounds of arsenic are released into the environment of the U.S.
each year by mining, coal burning, copper and lead smelting,
wood-preserving treatments, municipal incinerators and the use
of certain pesticides.[3,pg. 249] The International Agency for
Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization
(WHO), and the U.S. EPA both agree that arsenic is known to
cause cancer in humans.[4] According to EPA, at least 11
million people in the U.S. currently drink water contaminated
with arsenic at levels above 10 ppb.[5]

The 10 ppb arsenic standard would have put the U.S. squarely in
the mainstream. In 1993, the World Health Organization (WHO) set
10 ppb as the recommended limit for arsenic in drinking water.
The 15-nation European Union adopted 10 ppb as a mandatory
standard for arsenic in drinking water in 1998.[6] WHO says
even this level is not safe; for example, WHO estimates that
lifetime exposure to water containing 10 ppb of arsenic will
lead to six cases of skin cancer per 10,000 people.[7]

A 1999 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
recommended that the allowable levels of arsenic in U.S.
drinking water should be lowered "as promptly as possible."
Taking into consideration all forms of cancer, NAS said the
current standard of 50 ppb "could easily result in a combined
cancer risk on the order of 1 in 100."[8,pg.301] A one-in-100
risk is 10,000 times as great as the one-in-a-million risk that
EPA usually deems "acceptable."

EPA estimated that cutting allowable arsenic from 50 to 10 ppb
would prevent 1000 bladder cancers and 2000 to 5000 lung cancers
during a human lifetime. EPA did not estimate the reductions in
skin or prostate cancers, diabetes, nervous system damage,
immune system damage, or cardiovascular disease.[1]

Now a new study suggests that arsenic is a potent hormone
disrupter.[9] Working with rat tumor cells, researchers have
found that low-level arsenic exposure interferes with the
activity of hormones known as glucocorticoids. Glucocorti-coids
are involved in most of the human body's basic systems. They
help to regulate the immune system, the central nervous system,
and changes in blood, bones and kidneys, as well as the body's
use of sugars, starches, fats, and proteins. Glucocorticoids
affect weight, growth, and development.[10]

Arsenic's hormone-disrupting activity may explain how arsenic
promotes cancer. Studies of laboratory animals show that
glucocorticoids suppress some tumors. Arsenic may promote
cancers by interfering with this tumor-suppressing mechanism.

For President Bush, arsenic poisoning provides an opportunity
for humor. At a dinner speech in March the President said, "As
you know, we're studying safe levels for arsenic in drinking
water. (laughter) To base our decision on sound science, the
scientists told us we needed to test the water glasses of about
3,000 people. (laughter) Thank you for participating.

It is not entirely clear why Mr. Bush takes arsenic poisoning so
lightly, but it may have something to do with his ties to the
coal industry. Burning coal is a major source of arsenic
contamination. Many landfills contain arsenic-laden ash produced
by coal-burning power plants. Arsenic is likely to leak out of
these landfills, contaminating groundwater.[3,pg.250]

Coal companies were major contributors to Mr. Bush's election
campaign.Mr.Bush recently announced he was abandoning his
campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power
plants,[13] and he has turned his back on the Kyoto Protocol,
the international treaty to combat global warming.
Representative Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) says Mr. Bush's arsenic
policy is "another example of a special interest payback to
industries that gave millions of dollars in campaign

The wood products industry, which uses arsenic to pressure-treat
lumber, also stands to benefit from unsafe arsenic standards. A
representative of the American Wood Preservers Institute said
members of his organization were "relieved and delighted" by Mr.
Bush's decision.[5]

EPA spent ten years studying the dangers of arsenic in a public
process before proposing the 10 ppb standard. The Bush
administration now says the science behind the 10 ppb standard
is "unclear." Furthermore, the Bush EPA questions whether the
Clinton administration "fully understood" the costs of reducing
arsenic contamination, even though the Clinton EPA published
detailed cost estimates for public review and comment.[14]

In developing the 10 ppb standard, EPA estimated that the total
cost of reducing arsenic contamination to 10 ppb nationwide
would be around $181 million a year. If this cost were paid
entirely by households that use affected water supplies,it would
average about 12 dollars per person per year.EPA says the total
annual benefits from avoiding unnecessary bladder and lung
cancers would range from $140 million to $198 million. In other
words, the monetary benefits from reducing these two illnesses
alone would match the costs of removing arsenic from drinking
water. EPA did not estimate monetary benefits from avoiding
other illnesses associated with arsenic exposure, such as skin,
prostate, and lung cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and
damage to the immune and nervous systems.[15]

NEW YORK TIMES writer Gina Kolata has gone to bat for Mr. Bush
on arsenic. By carefully selecting information, Kolata has
managed to make the proposed 10 ppb arsenic regulation seem
scientifically muddled and ultimately not worth the cost.[16]
To begin with, she points out correctly that arsenic is natural:
"God put it there," she quotes one scientist as saying, but she
does not mention the millions of pounds of arsenic that
corporations dump into air and water each year.

Kolata quotes an industry consultant who says he would bet a
dollar that the "minuscule" number of lives to be saved by
reducing arsenic levels is not statistically different from
zero. Given that we know arsenic causes many different human
diseases and given that we even know the mechanism by which this
seems to occur (hormone disruption), it seems scientifically
untenable and ethically bankrupt to assume "zero" effect when
exposing tens of millions of people to arsenic in their drinking

Kolata cites EPA's estimate of how many bladder and lung cancers
could be prevented by adopting the 10 ppb standard, but she does
not mention the many other diseases that could be prevented by a
safer standard. Kolata points out, correctly, that NAS did not
recommend a specific level to which contamination should be
reduced. However, she forgets to mention that the NAS urged the
U.S. to reduce its arsenic "as promptly as possible," and that
the NAS indicates that no level of arsenic exposure is known to
be safe.[8,pg.300]

Kolata mentions correctly that the World Health Organization has
set 10 ppb as its standard for arsenic in drinking water, but
she says, "Most European countries have set their maximum
arsenic levels at 20 parts per billion in water..." thus making
it seem as if the WHO and the EPA are outside the mainstream.
This is incorrect. The 15-nation European Union in 1998 adopted
10 ppb arsenic as a standard for drinking water; EU member
nations are specifically prohibited from adopting a standard
less stringent than 10 ppb.[6] Thirteen other European nations
have applied for membership in the EU; when they achieve it,
they too will be bound by the EU's 10 ppb arsenic standard.


*Rachel Massey is a consultant to Environmental Research

[1] EPA Office of Water, "Technical Fact Sheet: Proposed Rule
for Arsenic in Drinking Water and Clarifications to Compliance
and New Source Contaminants Monitoring [EPA 815-F-00-011] ,"
(May 2000). Available at

[2] See http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/New/newstuff.htm#arsenicanedc.

[3] Syracuse Research Corporation, TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE FOR
ARSENIC (Atlanta, Ga.: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry, September 2000).

[4] See International Agency for Research on Cancer, "List of
IARC Evaluations," Group 1 (list updated April 5, 2000). Go to and click on "Group 1."
Also see Environmental Health Information Service, "Ninth Report
on Carcinogens," Group A (revised January, 2001). Go to
http://ehis.niehs.nih.gov/roc/toc9.html and click on "Known Human

[5] Douglas Jehl, "E.P.A. to Abandon New Arsenic Limits for
Water Supply," NEW YORK TIMES (March 21, 2001), pg. A1.

[6] Council of the European Union, "Council Directive 98/83/EC of
November 1998 on the quality of water intended for human
12, 1998, pgs. L330/32-L330/52. Available for purchase at

[7] World Health Organization, "Water, Sanitation and Health:
Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality," information extracted
from World Health Organization, GUIDELINES FOR DRINKING-WATER
QUALITY , 2nd edition, Vol. 1 (Geneva: World Health
Organization, 1993), pgs. 41-42. Available at

[8] National Research Council, ARSENIC IN DRINKING WATER [ISBN
0309063337] (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999).
Available at http://books.nap.edu/books/0309063337/html/index.html

[9] Ronald C. Kaltreider and others, "Arsenic Alters the
Function of the Glucocorticoid Receptor as a Transcription
(March 2001), pgs. 245-251.

[10] See

[11] Frank Bruni, "Word for Word/Bushspeak; The President's Sense
of Humor Has Also Been Misunderestimated," NEW YORK TIMES (April
1, 2001), Week in Review, pg. 7.

[12] John Harte and others, TOXICS A TO Z: A GUIDE TO EVERYDAY
POLLUTION HAZARDS [ISBN 0520072243] (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1991), pgs. 217-221.

[13] Douglas Jehl and Andrew C. Revkin, "Bush, in Reversal,
Won't Seek Cut in Emissions of Carbon Dioxide," NEW YORK TIMES
(March 14, 2001), pg. A1.

[14] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "EPA to Propose
Withdrawal of Arsenic in Drinking Water Standard; Seeks
Independent Reviews," Press Release (March 20, 2001). Available

[15] EPA Office of Water, "Technical Fact Sheet: Final Rule for
Arsenic in Drinking Water [EPA 815-F-00-016] ,"(January 2001).
Available at

[16] Gina Kolata, "Putting a Price Tag on the Priceless," NEW
YORK TIMES (April 8, 2001), Week in Review, pg. 4.