- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2001

In underscoring the cardinal rule of toxicology, namely that "the dose makes the poison," Kenneth Smith has put his finger on one of the most pernicious developments threatening public health policy today ("Science can wait," March 29).

Those who claim there is no threshold below which exposure to a substance arsenic, dioxin or some other chemical is safe can be counted on to demand the most stringent regulatory controls. This "better safe than sorry" approach has a certain superficial appeal, and it serves as the rationale for something known as the "precautionary principle." Already gaining a secure foothold in regulatory decisions in the European Union, the precautionary principle essentially means "guilty until proven innocent." Regardless of how spurious the allegation of potential harm, it is up to the proponent of the reportedly unsafe substance or product to prove that no harm will result from exposure to it. True to the tenets of the precautionary principle, the European Union set its standard for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb), compared to the U.S. standard of 50 ppb. In setting aside the attempt by the outgoing Clinton appointees to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt the European Union´s (and the World Health Organization´s) arsenic standard, the Bush administration decided to let scientific inquiry determine at what level the dose makes the poison.

The decision also dealt a blow to the precautionary principle. Had it guided EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman´s ruling on arsenic, water systems serving hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas of the West would have been driven to the brink of insolvency.


Senior fellow

Lexington Institute


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