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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
23 April 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 17

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Talking Sense about Arsenic in Drinking Water

The personal vendetta against President Bush because of his suspension of new EPA rules on arsenic makes reasonable discussion impossible and excludes other possible solutions.

by Jerome F. Winzig

When President Bush suspended the Clinton administration's new rules that would have slashed the allowable content of arsenic in U.S. drinking water by 80 percent (from 50 to 10 parts per billion), the outrage by some groups was palpable. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club said, "This move is the latest in several recent environmental attacks by Bush that put industry ahead of the American public." Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council asserted, "Many will die from arsenic-related cancers and other diseases. This outrageous act is just another example of how the polluters have taken over the government."

But just who are these "polluters?" According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the environment. Arsenic in ground water is largely the result of minerals dissolving naturally from weathered rocks and soils." According to the USGS, arsenic concentrations in ground water are generally highest in the West, and seem to be higher in parts of the Midwest and the Northeast. And what is the "industry" that Bush is allegedly putting ahead of the nation's interest? It's the municipal water treatment industry.

The personal hostility towards Bush exhibited by some environmental groups indicates an almost total lack of perspective. In an effort to introduce perspective to another health danger, Dr. Michael Osterholm, former Minnesota state epidemiologist and now head of the Infection Control Advisory Network, recently urged people to put the threat of mad-cow disease in context. He pointed out that 5,000 people die each year in the United States alone because of salmonella and e-coli infections, while there have been a grand total of 100 human deaths over the last 10 years from mad-cow disease in all of Europe.

By comparison, a study by the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies in January concluded that the new EPA standard would likely save 10 statistical lives annually -- at a cost of $65 million per life saved. The number of people that die from salmonella and e-coli infection is 500 times greater, yet there is great resistance to irradiating meats, fruits, and vegetables at a fraction of the cost (two to five cents per pound).

We seem to have lost all common sense in assessing relative risk, with some irrationally asserting that "cost is no object." However, as the AEI-Brookings study pointed out, there always is a tradeoff. It concluded, "After taking into account the indirect impacts of the cost of the rule on items like health care expenditures, however, we find that the rule [that Bush suspended] is likely to result in a net loss of about ten lives annually" (emphasis added). The study further concluded that the new arsenic rule's "risk reduction is less than one in 1 million." By comparison, the average American's annual risk of being killed in an auto accident is 166 times greater -- one in 6,000.

Costs always have to be taken into account. The American Water Works Association, a trade group of water treatment agencies, estimates it will cost $4.5 billion in new special treatment facilities to meet the annual cost of the new arsenic rule, plus an additional $500 million per year in increased extraction costs. Furthermore, that cost burden will fall disproportionately on the small communities that currently supply about 15 million Americans with drinking water that does not meet the current standards. According to the EPA's own estimates, the cost for water systems serving less than 10,000 people is expected to range between $38 and $327 in additional charges per year per household.

Wouldn't it be far cheaper and more effective to look at other alternatives? Suppose, for example, that water departments in communities with arsenic levels over 30 parts per billion began providing their customers with discount coupons for bottled water. This would target those most at risk, would be far cheaper, and could be started immediately simply by inserting coupons in residents' water bills.

However, in today's political climate -- where anyone who dares to challenge any environmentalist's claim is branded as a deliberate polluter -- no rational discussion of alternatives or relative risks is possible. Even though our drinking water is cleaner than that of earlier generations, John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace, tells us that the "weakening of drinking water protections makes his [Bush's] environmental pledge clear: 'Let Them Drink Arsenic.'" Such absurd accusations need to stop, so we can decide how to best apply limited resources to solving our most serious problems.

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