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.
“This makes it more difficult,” Whitman spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said Monday. “Their study reinforces the cancer risks. ... If anything, they believe that there is more risk than the EPA thought previously.”
In particular, the 189-page report reinforces that the cancer risks are high even for low levels of arsenic in tap water. The current standard of 50 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water has been in place since 1942.
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.
One of former President Clinton’s last actions, three days before leaving office in January, was to adopt a tougher standard of 10 ppb, but the Bush administration suspended that, citing the high costs to local communities of implementing that standard and calling for additional study while questioning the scientific basis for the Clinton rule.
The standard was suspended until next February, leaving in place at least for the time being the 50 ppb arsenic standard. The Bush administration had said the EPA lacked evidence to justify the $200 million annual cost to municipalities, states and industry of meeting the Clinton standard by 2006. Whitman also had convened an EPA working group to study costs to local communities.
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, according to one person who’s seen the report. The EPA’s maximum acceptable level of risk for the past two decades for all drinking water contaminants has been one in 10,000.
“It really is a bombshell because it says EPA severely underestimated the cancer threat by several fold,” said Erik D. Olson, a senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group whose lawsuits forced the Clinton administration to propose a new standard. “The bottom line is that they clearly should be going below 10 parts per billion in the new standard.”
While the report makes no recommendations more specific than that the standard should be set lower than 50 ppb, its authors studied the health effects of establishing a standard of 3, 5, 10 or 20 ppb — as was requested by Whitman. At each level, the study found, the cancer risks were much higher than the EPA had estimated.
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.
Lawsuits by NRDC since last year initially prompted the Clinton administration to propose a standard of 5 ppb, but after industry protests it was set at 10 ppb. NRDC is now suing the Bush EPA over its decision to suspend the Clinton arsenic rule and for ignoring a June 22 congressional deadline for having a new plan to reduce arsenic levels.
Congress amended the 1974 Safe Water Drinking Act last fall and ordered the EPA to adopt a new arsenic standard by this summer.
Six Democratic senators have publicly announced they would file papers in support of NRDC’s lawsuit, but the court has not yet set a timetable for those papers to be filed.
The lawsuit alleges the administration violated provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Administrative Procedures Act by suspending the Clinton standard. It is being taken up in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
On the Net: EPA Office of Water: http://www.epa.gov/ow
Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org