- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

"This is another example of a special interest payback to industries that gave millions of dollars in campaign contributions" to then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, says Rep. Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California. "They are mounting a bigger assault on the environment and public health than any other administration or the Gingrich Congress did," says Philip Clapp, president of an organization called the National Environmental Trust. Those were some of the more thoughtful comments by critics of the Bush administrations decision to postpone introduction of new limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water.
So which health-assaulting, environment-destroying K Street interest group had the nerve to say the following: "No human studies of sufficient statistical power or scope have examined whether the consumption of arsenic in drinking water at the current results in an increased incidence of cancer or noncancerous effects?" The mining industry? The wood products industry? State and local officials concerned about the cost of meeting a new, lower standard? All have an interest in what the ultimate standard is. Try the National Research Council (NRC).
At the request of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an NRC panel studied the risks of arsenic, both a naturally occurring substance and a manufacturing byproduct, in drinking water and released its findings in 1999. Based in part on studies of persons outside the United States, who were exposed to arsenic at substantially higher levels than Americans, the NRC recommended lowering concentrations of the substance in U.S. drinking water supplies. At the same time, however, it acknowledged numerous factors genetics, nutrition, sex and more that could confound the extrapolation of foreign data to the United States. It also recommended more study.
On the "strength" of these findings, the Clinton EPA used its last days in power to hustle out new, lower standards for arsenic in drinking water. To the Waxmans of the world, running through this regulatory express checkout amounted to the last word in the debate. To state and local officials around the country, though, it meant potentially enormous expense for localities by some estimates $5 billion or more to upgrade water facilities, replace filtration systems and so on. New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici complained that the standard would cost his state alone between $400 million and $500 million.
What does money matter when a life is at stake? EPA predicted that when the standard was phased in, it might mean 37-57 fewer cancers nationwide. But these arent real cancers. They are guestimates based on models and assumptions. EPA cant show you anyone who has gotten cancer from trace amounts of arsenic in the water supply. But the money spent preventing these imaginary cancers wont be available to prevent real cancers. That $5 billion happens to be more than the government now spends on breast or prostate cancer prevention.
This controversy speaks to more than just the Bush administrations environmental and health priorities. It speaks to the enormous power of the executive branch of government. During the presidential campaign, there was much discussion of the fact that whoever became president would have to reach across the political aisle to get anything done legislatively, so closely divided was power in Congress.
But Mr. Clinton understood that he had the authority to effect enormous changes in government roadless wilderness areas, emission reductions, monument designations, pardons and, yes, arsenic standards by relying on powers that Congress ceded to the executive branch long ago. Mr. Waxman applauded rule by executive fiat, so long as Mr. Clinton was issuing the fiats. But now that the ranks of the Bush administration are rapidly filling with horrors known conservatives determined to use that power for different ends, he and his allies have lost their enthusiasm for it.
The controversy also speaks to the familiar rule of toxicology that "the dose makes the poison." Put another way, there is no such thing as a toxic substance. There is only a toxic dose. The rule applies to arsenic no less than any other substance. Environmentalists argue that if a substance is poisonous at a high dose, it is poisonous at a low dose; there is no threshold exposure below which it is safe. Its a convenient argument when one is trying to close a manufacturer which produces trace amounts of a suspect chemical or to raise money from a fearful public.
Consider again the case of arsenic. At high doses, well above existing standards, arsenic is toxic. But in trace amounts it may not only be harmless, it may be benign. A check of the medical literature turns up dozens of studies in peer-reviewed journals on the use of arsenic in the treatment of leukemia, for example. By diverting scarce tax dollars from real to hypothetical health problems, the fear-mongering over arsenic may wind up being a bigger assault on the environment and public health than arsenic ever was.
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