- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

Are we worrying too much about arsenic in the water? The anguish is making us more aggrieved than the actuality.
In late March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked for a 60-day extension of the effective date of the arsenic standard for drinking water released Jan. 22. Administrator Christine Todd Whitman announced that the EPA would seek "independent reviews of both the science behind the standard and of the estimates of the costs to communities of implementing the rule." The rule would have reduced the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water from 0.05 parts per million (ppm) to 0.01 ppm.
Predictably the green tree huggers responded with the usual pathological hyper-reflexes and some chose to feign grand-mal seizures.
The current American standard of 0.05 ppm was first set in 1942. In1903, the Royal Commission of London responded to an episode of arsenic poisoning from beer and set a drinking water standard of 0.108 ppm. Higher levels of exposure have caused all outbreaks of arsenic poisoning since then. The current standard was set with a fourfold safety margin. In other words, people would have to be exposed to arsenic levels 4 times higher than now allowed before reaching threshold exposures. Many common medicines, such as the heart medicine digitalis, have lower safety factors.
Most parts of the country have water supplies with much less arsenic than the standard. The average arsenic concentration in U.S. drinking water is 0.005 ppm, already 10 times less than the current standard. Some areas have levels at the current 0.05 ppm standard.
When the government published the new arsenic standards in January, it acknowledged that hundreds of millions of dollars would need to be spent to reduce arsenic levels to meet the new standard. According to Jason K. Burnett and Robert W. Hahn of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, when, "people have fewer resources, they spend less to reduce risks. The resulting increase in risk offsets the direct reduction in risk," due to government action. In other words, the EPA needs to factor in a dose of common sense in its proposals.
In trying to simplify the issue, many writers and government officials ignore the fact that many substances poisonous at high levels actually promote health at low levels, including Vitamin A, Vitamin C, selenium, alcohol and ionizing radiation. Almost all poisonous substances are harmless if diluted enough, including arsenic.
Theres no reasonable expectation of any benefit in reducing arsenic to the proposed level. Its likely that these proposals would kill more Americans than they might save. Risk analysis studies conclude that resources expended wastefully actually cost human lives. Economic risk estimates vary, with the waste of from $10 million to $50 million per year estimated to cause one premature American death per year. The hundreds of millions of dollars wasted meeting illusionary aresenic standards might be better spent expanding the federal childrens health insurance program to cover low-income working parents.
The Bush administration seems to understand that tiny amounts of arsenic have been with us forever. Because arsenic is the 12th most common atomic element in our environment, its impossible to avoid completely. According to a National Academy of Sciences projection, tiny amounts of arsenic actually could be essential to good health.
On April 2, Mrs. Whitman elegantly answered her critics by writing, "I have ordered further review of the science behind the new standard, as well as of the compliance cost estimates and the cost-benefit analysis that were made in support of it. That review will result in a new standard."
Mrs. Whitman assured and assuaged us further: "Because the new standard was not scheduled to take effect in most places until 2006, this review will not result in any delays in implementing a new standard based on solid, objective information."
We applaud the new EPA officials for reviewing the Clinton arsenic and old lace policy. We hope they balance real hazards, risks, excessive angst and other complications against real benefits. President Bush also should be praised for "pursuing correctness" rather than pandering to the "politically correct."
As for us, we still intend to drink the water.


Robert J. Cihak, M.D., of Aberdeen, Wash., is president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., of Newport Beach, Calif., writes extensively on health-care policy issues.

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