NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Arsenic In Drinking Water" Sounds Scary -- Until One Reads On

April 19, 2001

Radical environmental activists are livid that President George W. Bush has pulled back a Clinton administration order to limit still further the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. Bush has let it be known decisions of this sort will be made based on the best science available, not in response to political demands.

Actually, few government issues have been so thoroughly researched, over so many years, as the arsenic-in-water question.

  • It took the Environmental Protection Agency 17 years -- and six intense weeks at the end of the Clinton administration -- to order the sharp reductions in the naturally occurring carcinogen in America's water supply.
  • The beefed-up standard -- to 10 parts per billion from 50 ppb -- was first proposed by the U.S. Public Health Service back in 1962.
  • Over the next three decades, regulators weighed dozens of studies on the issue, including six reports by the prestigious National Research Council.
  • Now the issue is being studied again, this time at the behest of EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman who has asked the National Academy of Sciences to consider levels of 3 to 20 ppb.

Arsenic levels are currently so low that there is little the government can do without mandating enormous costs and practically no benefits. The AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies has concluded that the EPA standard would likely save only 10 statistical lives annually at a cost of $65 million per life saved.

Sources: Ronald Bailey (Reason magazine), "On Environment, a Return to Reason;" and Peter Waldman, "All Agree Arsenic Kills: The Question Is How Much It Takes to Do So;" both in Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2001; Jason K. Burnett and Robert W. Hahn, "EPA's Arsenic Rule: The Benefits of the Standard Do Not Justify the Costs," Regulatory Analysis 01-02, January 2001, AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Analysis.


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