Arsenic in drinking water
At what level is the risk acceptable?

Wednesday, March 28, 2001

THE debate over how much arsenic should be allowed in Americans' drinking water has erupted anew. This month, EPA administrator Christie Whitman announced she was suspending the tighter arsenic standards that Bill Clinton had set in the last days of his presidency. The rules were to take full effect in 2006.

Although the move was seen by environmentalists as another example of the Bush administration putting the concerns of big business before the environment, it is simply too soon to gauge whether that's really the case.

Mrs. Whitman promises to review the arsenic standard, which has been 50 parts per billion for the past 58 years. She acknowledges that the current standard should be tightened, and she says that a new standard will go into effect by the 2006 deadline.

The problem with the Clinton standard, Mrs. Whitman says, is that it's unclear whether the science supports reducing it by 80 percent to 10 parts per billion. She also says the costs of meeting the Clinton standards would not have been economically feasible for many smaller municipal water supplies nationwide.

Arsenic is the only known carcinogen allowed at any level in America's drinking water. It occurs naturally in groundwater in many regions. It is also a byproduct of mining and wood treatment, and those industries opposed the tougher arsenic standards.

In New Jersey, officials plan to reduce the arsenic standard to 10 parts per billion, regardless of what standard the EPA ultimately sets. United Water, which serves much of North Jersey, says water from its reservoirs is virtually arsenic-free, but state environmental officials have suggested that people using water from private wells in northern New Jersey should have their water tested for arsenic.

The National Academy of Sciences recommended two years ago that the U.S. standard be reduced to 10 parts per billion as soon as possible. That level has already been adopted by the European Union and World Health Organization. At least 13 million Americans drink water that's above the 10 parts per billion standard.

That's why the EPA must follow through on Mrs. Whitman's announced intention to review the 50 parts per billion arsenic standard promptly. As Mrs. Whitman indicates, the question before the EPA is not whether to tighten the arsenic standard but by how much. Ultimately, the standard should err on the side of the public health.