Study: EPA too lax on arsenic
Cancer risks of tainted tap water underestimated; tougher rules likely

By John Heilprin / Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A National Academy of Sciences report shows that the Environmental Protection Agency has greatly underestimated the cancer risks of arsenic in drinking water, according to EPA officials and other environmental experts familiar with the report.
   The report being issued to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman this week, which has been kept under wraps, says the cancer risks are much higher than the agency had previously acknowledged under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the officials said Monday.
   For the first time, the Bush EPA is conceding it will be hard-pressed not to accept arsenic standards for drinking water at least as stringent as those adopted by the Clinton administration but put on hold by the Bush administration.
   "It really is a bombshell because it says EPA severely underestimated the cancer threat by several fold," said Erik Olson, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group whose lawsuits forced the Clinton administration to propose a new standard.
   Arsenic is both a naturally occurring substance and industrial byproduct, entering the water supply from natural deposits and pollution. It is found at high concentrations in Western mining states and other areas heavy with coal-burning and copper smelting.
   The current standard of 50 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water has been in place since 1942.
   One of former President Clinton's last actions was to adopt a tougher standard of 10 ppb, but the Bush administration suspended that, citing the $200 Million a year it would cost to implement that standard and calling for additional st Now, however, the academy report says that even at 3 ppb, the risk of bladder and lung cancer is between four and 10 cancer deaths per 10,000 people. The EPA's maximum acceptable level of risk for the past two decades for all drinking water contaminants has been one in 10,000.
   The report points to health effects other than cancer that should be considered, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. It also rejects arguments by industry and some local water utilities that there is a clear, safe threshold below which arsenic does not cause cancer.