Environment & Science
10:33 am
Wed July 2, 2014

Politics, profits delay action on arsenic in drinking water

Arsenic is nearly synonymous with poison. But most people don't realize that they consume small amounts of it in the food they eat and the water they drink.

Recent research suggests even small levels of arsenic may be harmful. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been prepared to say since 2008 that arsenic is 17 times more toxic as a carcinogen than the agency now reports.

Women are especially vulnerable. EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.

The EPA, however, hasn’t been able to make its findings official, an action that could trigger stricter drinking water standards. The roadblock: a single paragraph inserted into a committee report by a member of Congress, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found.

It's now unclear when the agency's arsenic review will be finished, even though scores of studies have linked arsenic not just to cancer, but also to heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

The paragraph essentially ordered the EPA to halt its evaluation of arsenic and hand over its work to the National Academy of Sciences.

The congressman, Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, said he was concerned that small communities couldn’t meet tougher drinking water standards and questioned the EPA's ability to do science. But a lobbyist for two pesticide companies acknowledged to CPI that he was among those who asked for the delay. As a direct result of the delay, a weed killer the EPA was going to ban at the end of 2013 remains on the market.

The tactic is among an arsenal of tricks used by industry and lawmakers to virtually paralyze EPA scientists who evaluate toxic chemicals. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order seeking to stop political interference with science. The EPA unveiled a plan to evaluate far more chemicals each year than had been done during the George W. Bush or Bill Clinton administrations. In the last two years, however, it’s completed only six.

It’s now unclear when the agency’s arsenic review will be finished, even though scores of studies have linked arsenic not just to cancer, but also to heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

Meanwhile, people like Wendy Brennan, who lives in rural Maine with her two daughters and two grandchildren, are left to worry about all the arsenic-tainted water they've consumed. Brennan participated in a study by Columbia University researchers, who found levels of arsenic in her well water that were more than five times the federal standard.

“My eldest daughter said … ‘You’re feeding us rat poison,’ ” Brennan said. “I said, ‘Not really,’ but I guess essentially, that is what you’re doing. You’re poisoning your kids.”

Then, another shock: The researchers reported that children who drank water containing arsenic – even at levels that met the federal standard – scored six points lower on IQ tests than children who drank clean water.

“Your job as a mother is to give your kids the best,” said Brennan, who installed an $800 filter that removes arsenic from her water. “Just by giving my kids juice … giving them cups of water, which you are supposed to do, I was actually giving them a sediment that’s settling in their body, and I may not know for 10 years if it’s affected them.”

Key Findings:

  • Arsenic, a potent poison, is found in small amounts in the food we eat and the water we drink.
  • EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.
  • A single paragraph inserted into a committee report by a member of Congress essentially ordered the EPA to halt its evaluation of arsenic, an action that has kept the agency from tightening its drinking water standard for the toxin.
  • A lobbyist for two pesticide companies acknowledged that he was among those who asked for the delay. As a result, a weed killer the EPA was going to ban at the end of 2013 remains on the market.

You can read my full story on the Center for Public Integrity.