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Angela Logomasini - Arsenic

Angela Logomasini - Arsenic

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Competitive Enterprise Institute on Dec 07, 2010
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202-331-1010 www.cei.org Competitive Enterprise Institute
The debate over whether to tighten thedrinking water standard for arsenic highlighteda key problem with federal drinking waterregulation: the inappropriateness of the federalgovernment’s setting local priorities. At anytime, local governments and utilities can moni-tor and control any contaminant they choose,and they know better where to devote theirscarce resources. Nonetheless, as the case of arsenic demonstrates, the Safe Drinking WaterAct (SDWA) allows federal regulators to imposepriorities even when they promise a net loss topublic health and well-being.
Arsenic is an element that is a naturalpart of Earth’s crust. It exists in organic andinorganic forms, but the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency (EPA) regulations focus oninorganic arsenic because it is more prevalentin drinking water. Traditionally, many criticshave contended that inorganic arsenic wasthe principal danger to public health. But theEPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) pointedout that the research is actually far less clear.Recent research indicates that at least someforms of organic arsenic are carcinogenic,and some may be more toxic than inorganicforms.
1. SAB,
Arsenic Proposed Drinking Water Regulation:A Science Advisory Board Review of Certain Elements of the Proposal 
, EPA-SAB-DWC-01-001 (Washington, DC:EPA, December 2000), 10–11.
 Angela Logomasini
The Environmental SourceCompetitive Enterprise Institute www.cei.org 202-331-1010
Legislative History
The drinking water standard for most regu-lated substances is specified as a “maximumcontaminant level,” or MCL. The MCL setsthe maximum amount of a substance that theEPA will allow in tap water. Between 1975 and2002, the EPA used an MCL of 50 parts perbillion for arsenic, which meant that it allowedno more than 50 parts per billion of arsenicper liter of tap water. This standard was set asan “interim standard” after the passage of theSDWA. The 1986 revisions to the law mandatedthat the agency set a final standard by 1989.After the agency missed the legislative dead-line and a court-ordered deadline, amendmentsto the SDWA in 1996 extended the deadlines forthe rule. The amendments required the agencyto propose a standard by January 2000 andto finalize the rule by January 2001. In June2000—five months later than legislatively man-dated—the agency proposed a new standard of five parts per billion.
Because EPA proposedthe rule late, lawmakers, water providers, andlocal officials expressed concern that there wasnot enough time to consider fully the proposedrule and its implications. Congress respondedby including language in a fiscal year 2000 ap-propriations bill that extended the deadline forsix additional months.But in the waning days of the Clinton ad-ministration, the EPA published a final standardof 10 parts per billion in the
Federal Register
 The standard would have been effective startingMarch 23, 2001, although water systems wouldhave had until 2006 to comply. Senator Pete
Federal Register
65, no. 121 (June 22, 2000):38888–983.3.
Federal Register
66, no. 14 (January 22, 2001):6976–7066.
Domenici (R-NM) responded by introducing S.223, which would void the new rule. In March2001, the Bush administration announced thatit would delay the effective date of the standardfor 60 days to review the rule and the underly-ing science. In April 2001, the administrationissued a notice announcing that it would delaythe final rule until 2002, after further scientificreview and a cost analysis were complete.
Thedelay of the rule proved controversial, as theDemocratic National Committee and environ-mental activists suggested that the delay wouldthreaten public health. The administrationcompleted its review and issued the Clintonstandard in the fall of 2001.
Welfare Losses
The debate on arsenic largely focused on thepublic health consequences of arsenic in drink-ing water, but it failed to consider the publichealth impacts of the rule itself. According to aU.S. Congressional Budget Office study, federaldrinking water regulations can impose “welfarelosses”—a phrase that highlights the possibilityof shortsighted federal standards reducing theoverall public welfare.
With the arsenic rule, the welfare losses willlikely be high, because the costs fall dispro-portionately on low-income rural Americans,mainly in the Southwest. In fact, the SAB high-lights these very points, noting that an overlyexpensive arsenic rule “might force tradeoffsthat do not maximize the gains to public health.For example, “allocation of income to arsenic
Federal Register
66, no. 78 (April 23, 2001):20580–84.5. U.S. Congressional Budget Office,
Federalism and Environmental Protection: Case Studies for Drinking Water and Ground-Level Ozone
(Washington, DC: U.S.Congressional Budget Office, November 1997).
Safe Drinking Water Act202-331-1010 www.cei.org Competitive Enterprise Institute
might preclude addressing nutritional factors”because the standard could make it difficult forlow-income families to put food on the table.In addition, the SAB noted that high treat-ment costs could lead communities to discon-nect systems and access water from potentiallymore dangerous sources, such as from poorlydesigned wells or untreated surface water.
Thestatistics on how much the law will cost revealthat welfare losses are likely to be high:According to the EPA, per household costs
of this rule alone could add $326 annuallyto water bills in systems that serve fewerthan 100 connections and up to $162 in sys-tems that serve between 100 and 100,000residents. Even residents in larger systemsthat serve up to a million residents mightsee water bills increase by $20 per year.
 According to conservative EPA estimates,
the total annual costs of the rule couldrange from $180 million to $205 million.
 Water suppliers and independent academicexperts estimate the costs would be farhigher—$604 million over and above anyestimated benefits each year, with an initialinvestment cost of $5 billion.
Independentresearchers have found that the costs wouldexceed benefits by $600 million annually.
6. Ibid., 38.7.
Federal Register
65, no. 14 (January 22, 2001):7011.8.
Federal Register
65, no. 14 (January 22, 2001):7010.9. “Environmental Group Asks Court to Force OMBto Issue Arsenic Proposal,”
Daily Environment Report 
 no. 92 (May 11, 2000): A1.10. Robert S. Raucher,
Public Interest Comment onthe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: ArsenicRule
(Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center, 2000).
Problems with the Underlying Science
Because tightening the standard would forcepeople to make serious sacrifices, one mightassume that, before issuing its rule, the EPAhad clear evidence indicating that the currentstandard is not safe. Yet even after the Bushadministration reviewed the science, it is stillfar from clear that the rule would provide anybenefit. According to the National ResearchCouncil, “No human studies of sufficient sta-tistical power or scope have examined whetherconsumption of arsenic in drinking water at thecurrent MCL [the standard before the Clintonadministration acted] results in the incidence of cancer or no cancer effects.
 Most of what scientists do know relates toa few studies that reveal one thing: relativelyhigh-level exposure to arsenic for long periodsof time can cause cancer and other ailments.The EPA based its risk assessment on studiesof Taiwanese populations in 42 villages whowere exposed to relatively high levels of arsenic.From these studies, the EPA has extrapolatedrisks of low-level arsenic exposures in drinkingwater to the U.S. population. But the SAB andthe National Research Council have pointed outserious flaws. Among them are the following:Although the Taiwanese studies found an
association between high exposures andcancer, these data do not necessarily sup-port any link between low-level exposuresand cancer in the United States.
11. National Research Council,
Arsenic in Drinking Wa-ter
(Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1999),7, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=6444.12. SAB,
Review of the Draft Criteria Document onInorganic Arsenic
, EPA-SAB-DWC-94-004 (Washington,DC: U.S. EPA, November 1993).

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