Costs of Zero Risk: Arsenic

Related articles

A 2001 Democratic National Committee commercial attacked George W. Bush's policy on arsenic levels in water: a young child asking, "Can I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy?" The underlying premises of the ad were that current environmental standards tolerated dangerous levels of naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water and that was just fine by President Bush. Both premises were wrong: the current levels of arsenic in water were posing no known hazard to human health and President Bush caved in, gave in to the demands of environmentalists and lowered the arsenic standards without the benefit of any data suggesting that public health would benefit.

Now the state of California is proposing to reduce natural arsenic levels even lower than the pending new, national standard and the economic impact on the state will be staggering. No wonder California is going broke. Even worse, the further reduction very well may threaten public health as unintended consequences set in. First, some background:

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element, ubiquitous in the environment in both organic and inorganic forms. Inorganic arsenic, the more toxic form, is found in groundwater, surface water, and in many foods such as fish, rice and grains. Human exposure to inorganic arsenic is mainly through drinking water. In some parts of the world Taiwan, Mexico, Bangladesh, Inner Mongolia, and western South America including Chile and Argentina arsenic occurs at high levels naturally in drinking water, at levels ranging from several hundred to well over one thousand parts per billion. Exposure to arsenic in water at these high levels has been found to increase the risk of some forms of cancer, including kidney, bladder, and skin cancers.

The current acceptable level for arsenic in the United States is fifty parts per billion and that has been in place since l942. There is no convincing evidence of detrimental health effect in humans from drinking water with arsenic levels at or below this level. As summarized by the National Research Council in 1999, "no human studies of sufficient statistical power or scope have examined whether consumption of arsenic in drinking water at the (currently acceptable levels) results in an increased incidence of cancer or non-cancer effects."

Simply put, there is no evidence at hand that the arsenic standard in place poses any health hazards. But despite this, the Bush administration elected to set the federal standards in 2006 at 20 parts per billion. How much will this cost? Exact figures are not in. Some states like New Mexico, where the levels would have to be brought from the current acceptable level down to l0 will be hardest hit, as compared with some Eastern states where the levels are already at l0 ppb. The American Water Works Association estimated it could cost as much as $4.5 billion to build sufficient arsenic treatment units throughout the country, and another $20 million per year to operate the systems.

What exactly are we getting in terms of improved public health from such an expenditure? The answer to that question is unknown, but the best guess is "nothing."

Now, enter California into the fray. Last week that state set a new public health goal for arsenic in drinking water that is so low 4 ppb that _it cannot be measured by existing technology_. The projected cost to the state taxpayers is now estimated at more than $80 million to simply treat the wells and tens of millions more annually in maintenance costs.

Again, given that there is no compelling evidence that the current level 50 ppb poses a health risk, reducing the level to 4 is ludicrous. But why not do it "just in case" many in California will argue? "Let's not take any chances." Such a precautionary regulation aimed at eliminating phantom risks must be balanced against new risks that will inevitably be introduced, including the diversion of scarce public-health financial resources. Should Americans (and those taking an even more extreme regulatory stance in California) be approving expenditures that have no known health benefits, consuming funds that would otherwise be used to reduce (among other threats) the toll of AIDS or preventable cancers, not to mention potential biological terrorism against our country?

Until a larger number of Americans and their representatives in government understand the serious negative effects for both physical and fiscal health of enormous expenditures (with no proven benefits) cloaked as public health measures, our standard of living and enviable state of good health remain under assault.