- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Although much of the evening "news" really is on a "no need to know" basis, you do need to know whether your drinking water is
safe.
As physicians, we are concerned about all sorts of health risks and the human costs in attempting to overcome these risks.
One of the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to propose safe standards for levels of all kinds of substances in drinking water under the banner of protecting health.
However, sometimes the EPA's focus is too narrow and EPA officials do not see the damage caused by their own proposals. As physicians, one of our missions is to help other physicians and patients estimate the risks and benefits involved in health care and in diagnosing and treating illness. We have learned there are always tradeoffs in just about anything we do. That is, doing one thing often means that other things cannot be done. The EPA sometimes needs an additional dose of common sense in its proposals.
For example, the EPA recently proposed almost completely eliminating radon and arsenic from contact with human beings. Unfortunately, EPA officials are unnecessarily paranoid about these substances. Everybody knows that too much ionizing radiation or arsenic can cause illness, including cancer, or kill people outright. To "simplify" the issue, many authors, teachers and government officials ignore the fact that too little of many agents is also harmful. On the other hand, too much of good things can also be harmful; too much water can drown you and too much oxygen can destroy your lungs.
In fact, many substances which are poisonous at high levels actually promote health at low levels or in trace amounts, such as Vitamin A, selenium, Vitamin C, alcohol and ionizing radiation. For example, the National Academy of Sciences projects that tiny amounts of arsenic could be essential to good health. In another example, we take one-quarter of an aspirin tablet every day to reduce the likelihood that we will have a stroke or heart attack. If we get a headache, we take two. But if we took 100, we would die.
In addition, almost all poisonous substances are harmless if diluted enough. Arsenic has a well-earned poison reputation, both in fact and Hercule Poirot legend. Arsenic does indeed kill, but only if you get too much of it. Among the atomic elements making up our environment, arsenic is the 12th most common, so it is impossible to avoid completely. Yet the EPA goes overboard when it claims about arsenic, without any scientific or medical validity, "the recommended concentration for maximum protection of human health is zero."
To obtain the EPA's proposed national 5 mg/L standard for arsenic in drinking water, the EPA estimates a maintenance cost of "only"$374 million per year (plus much higher initial equipment costs). Others estimate annual costs of $1.4 billion (plus an initial equipment cost of $14 billion). Even accepting the EPA's lower estimate, we conclude that about 37 Americans would die prematurely because of these proposed regulations.
For radon, according to the EPA's estimates, the cost of reducing radon in drinking water to the proposed EPA standard (300 pCi/liter) would be more than $400 million/ year. Other estimates run more than 10 times higher. Therefore, in the case of radon, the EPA proposes killing perhaps 40 to 400 Americans every year. Yet there's no reasonable expectation of any benefit in reducing either radon or arsenic to the proposed level.
How would these proposals kill Americans? Risk analysis studies conclude that resources expended wastefully would actually cost human lives. This is because wealth and high living standards are strongly associated with health at societal and civilizational levels. Roughly, the waste of each $10 million per year causes one premature American death.
The EPA is zealous in its efforts to reduce exposure to many substances to zero, even though there is no scientific evidence that these reductions would benefit Americans. The hypothetical EPA calculations purposely ignore real-life experience with low doses of radon and arsenic; actual experience convincingly shows that ordinary levels of arsenic, radon and most other things are not harmful.
As physicians, we are concerned about the costs in human health and life inherent in these proposals. EPA officials still refuse to recognize that their proposals would cost human lives. All of life involves trade-offs. At the very least, money spent on EPA boondoggles can't be spent on other health needs, such as non-toxic doses of vitamins.
EPA officials need to review their arsenic and old-lace policy so as to balance real hazards, risks, and complications against real benefits. Congress needs to reassert its authority. As for us, we still intend to go near the water.


Robert J. Cihak, M.D. addresses environmental health risks as a member of the board of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness. Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D. has written extensively on medical, legal, mental health, and disability reform issues.

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