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Arsenic and Saving Face

By Scott Gillette


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The recent furor over the Bush Administration’s recent decision to reexamine new standards for the level of arsenic in the country’s water systems reflects the continuing inability of the GOP to win the public relations battle, even though the facts are clearly on their side. To review:

In his last days in office, Bill Clinton ordered that the Environmental Protection Agency change the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in the public water supply from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. That regulation was not to take effect until 2006. Saying that the issue requires further study, Christie Whitman, the new head of the EPA, put a hold on this forthcoming regulation in March. Environmental groups subsequently blasted the Bush Administration for its callous disregard for the environment. The Bush Administration has since tried to repair the political damage by announcing "pro-environment" measures just before "Earth Day", including Christie Whitman’s announcement that the National Academy of Sciences recommend a new arsenic standard between 3 parts per billion and 20 parts per billion.

Note that the Bush Administration has not softened the old standard of 50 parts per billion already in place. Nor has it reversed the new standard offered by Clinton, as it would not have gone into effect until 2006, but merely tabled it so it can be put under further study. At worst, the Bush Administration will maintain the current standard, and ultimately they may improve it.

Reducing the level of arsenic level may or may not be a good idea. The World Health Organization argues that the standard should be 10 parts per billion as a "provisional guideline". The National Academy of Sciences recommended a lower level as well in 1999.

However, the NAS noted the following while making the aforementioned recommendation: "Additional epidemiological evaluations are needed to characterize the dose-response relationship for arsenic-associated cancer and noncancer end points, especially at low doses. Such studies are of critical importance for improving the scientific validity of risk assessment." This means, in simple language, that they do not know whether strengthening the arsenic standard will make an iota of difference in improving public health.

By the NAS’ numbers, the new regulations would save 200 lives per year, but this is based on the unscientific method of extrapolation. Gordon Prather, a writer of and an expert on energy and environmental issues, writes that "in arsenic levels, as almost everything else EPA regulates -- what they do is start plotting percentage of mice killed vs. level of exposure. Suppose it's 100% at some level A and 10% at some other, much lower level B. Then they draw a straight line between A and B and then ask what percentage corresponds to some very, very low level C. Suppose that at C, that percentage turns out to be .00001%. Well, .00001% times 100 million mice is 10 dead mice."

But such a method does not distinguish between levels that kill and very small amounts that may make no qualitative difference. If you drink a sufficient amount of alcohol at one time, you will die, and if you drink a lot of it, your health will suffer, and you have a greater likelihood of contracting cancer. But if you drink two glasses of wine per week instead of one, are you more likely to contract cancer? Most health experts would not make such a claim. Infinitely small amounts of arsenic may fit this particular analogy.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance, and minute amounts of it in water may actually kill certain microbes in water, thus doing more good than harm for individuals who drink it.

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Senator Pete Dominici of New Mexico recently pointed out that his home state "has some of the highest naturally occurring levels of arsenic in the nation, yet has a lower than average incidence of the diseases associated with arsenic."

If new regulations are enacted, rural areas face the biggest hurdles in complying with the new standard. Of course, these rural areas and not the federal government would be forced to pay for the cost of the new regulations. Trying telling people living in rural areas that would be forced to comply with new water regulations and pay an extra hundred dollars a month for their water bill for scientific reasons that are ambiguous, at best.

"Bush is right about arsenic." Did a right-wing Neanderthal say this? No, liberal Michael Kinsley did. ''The question is never posed: Do you want your water bill to go up several hundreds of dollars a year to go from a one-in-500,000 to one-in-a-million chance of cancer?" Is this from a reactionary think-tank? Nope, this is from Peitro Nivola, a regulatory expert at the moderate to liberal Brookings Institution.

None of these facts and opinions settle the debate on arsenic. A stricter standard may prove to be valuable and sensible, although it may be above 10 parts per billion. However, it does make Whitman’s original plan to hold off implementation of the regulation until further study a sound one.

Moreover, it should be clear by now why Congress never passed stricter arsenic regulations on its own, why Clinton passed this regulation in the last moments of his Presidency and how the noise that environmental groups make on this issue do not square with the facts.

Nevertheless, a portion of the public undoubtedly believes that Bush’s stance on arsenic puts the health of the public in jeopardy, and it reflects their wariness of his positions on the environment.

I support drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, intelligent logging on federal lands, and a complete repudiation of the Kyoto Treaty. However, many moderates, where political elections are won and lost, would find these positions inimical to their own views, which more often than not are based in a principled but vague attitudinal stance as opposed to strong conviction. People believe that the environment is an important issue and want to be "for" it, but most people do not spend much time examining the minutiae of the issues involved.

This works to the disadvantage of the Bush Administration, which must choose between explaining its position that is difficult to sum up in a soundbite, or mollifying its position in order to suit moderates. This is a choice facing the GOP on a host of issues and poses an overarching question: to woo the moderates or to consolidate the conservative base?

The Bush Administration chose to woo moderates and play defense on this issue, as Whitman altered the EPA’s stance by asking the National Academy of Sciences to recommend a standard between 3 parts per billion and 20 per billion. But this stance is a mistake. Asking the NAS for a standard at 20 parts per billion or less is to assume that such a standard would provide specific health benefits before there is evidence to warrant it. Whitman’s position confers legitimacy to environmental groups in a premature fashion.

Environmentalists always have and always will demonize the Bush Administration or conservative ideas for an environmental stance that is less than all consuming. But Whitman’s EPA should stop trying to appeal a group of people who will never be satisfied with their policy directions, no matter how much thy try to appease criticism. Moreover, moderates who see an administration that caters to environmentalists is one that lacks the courage of its convictions, and loses the backbone that makes it worthy of support. Sound public policy should dictate public relations battles, and not the other way around.

The key is to get out the facts in a forceful but positive way. Above all, stop trying to appease groups who exalt indignation over facts. Democrats tend to be better than Republicans at these types of political games for several reasons, but Republicans are bound to lose if they don't fight back. In this case, Democratic interest groups seized upon this specific issue in an underhanded way, so as to bolster their own sense of moral and intellectual superiority to themselves and the general public. The best antidote to these political attacks is the following: spread the truth as much as possible, stay calm in the face of blistering and unfair characterizations in the press, and have faith that the American public will refuse to fall for demagoguery once they know the score.

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© Scott Gillette, 2001, All rights reserved.

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