America's Little (Well...) Actually Kind of Serious (Um...) Maybe It's Worse Than We Thought (Hmmm...) Pretty Damn Big (Gulp!) Arsenic Problem

Meet the proud residents of the nation's arsenic capital. Now, will someone please explain to these good people why poison's a bad thing?

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

AH, DENIAL. IT'S AN IMPULSE that has guided not only the city of Fallon, but the federal government's arsenic policies for nearly four decades. The 50 ppb arsenic limit was originally set in 1942 by the U.S. Public Health Service. Since 1962, when the Public Health Service first suggested reducing the limit to 10 ppb, the feds have become more fully aware that drinking arsenic-laden water can lead to bladder, skin, lung, kidney, and liver cancer.

So what's been holding them back? Not surprisingly, a 57,000-member trade group called the American Water Works Association, which has consistently decried the costly prospect of treating water for arsenic. The American Water Works Research Foundation, a think tank funded largely by water utilities, has also helped stall the EPA by giving it extra homework—asking questions about, say, the arsenic content in food and the difference between the myriad molecular types of the toxin. "They're not the tobacco industry; they do some good science," says Paul Mushak, a North Carolina toxicology consultant who's been cowriting arsenic studies for the EPA since 1981. "But they also glom onto issues that complicate things."

And the last thing the EPA needs is more complications. "There's a mind-set of economic caution there," says Mushak. "There's a big division in the Office of Drinking Water between the toxicologists and the engineers, and the engineers' attitude is, 'If you can convince us one-hundred-point-zero percent that we should lower the standard, we will. But not until then.'"

Sufficient proof took the better part of a century. In June 1999, the National Academy of Sciences published an exhaustive analysis of hundreds of arsenic studies going all the way back to 1887, when the British Medical Journal first reported the results of a dubious treatment for arsenic-caused skin cancer ("Both hands were amputated; the patient died 18 months later..."). The linchpin was a 1968 research project conducted by the Taiwan Health Ministry which examined 40,000 villagers who had drawn water from arsenic-tainted wells for at least 45 years; it definitively proved that arsenic causes skin cancer. The Academy's 1999 report was clear: The current arsenic limit "does not achieve EPA's goal for public-health protection and, therefore, requires downward revision as promptly as possible." The toxicologists in the Office of Drinking Water had been vindicated.

But old errors linger, hauntingly. The worst arsenic problem the world now faces developed out of a well-meaning but ultimately misguided UNICEF project begun during the 1970s. To wean Bangladeshi villagers off the pond and river water they shared with cows and buffalo, UNICEF helped construct over a million tube wells without testing the groundwater for arsenic. Now, more than 35 million people are drinking water that contains 100 or more ppb of arsenic, and cancer rates in Bangladesh have soared. Tens of thousands of people have skin spotted like spoiled fruit, with warts and sores covering their hands and feet. Allan Smith, director of Berkeley's Arsenic Health Effects Research Program, who has done fieldwork in Bangladesh, grimly predicts that hundreds of thousands could die with prolonged exposure. "High levels of arsenic in drinking water pose one of the biggest environmental cancer risks ever found," he says.

Do the good people of Fallon somehow have the pluck to transcend this risk? Bruce Macler, a drinking-water toxicologist for the EPA, answers with an emphatic no. "With the exception of tobacco," he says, "arsenic is probably the most proven toxin in the world. But that doesn't mean you can point to a smoking gun in Fallon. The problem is that 25 to 30 percent of the population nationwide gets cancer. You lose the arsenic-caused cancer in the noise of other cancers, and except in extreme cases—something like the epidemic in Bangladesh—you can't establish cause and effect. You stem epidemics by managing risk in the face of uncertainty. Fallon needs to do that. Until it does, people will die of arsenic poisoning."

Which brings us back to denial. Many small towns will openly shirk the new laws for as long as they can. Brian Maas, the director of water enforcement for the EPA, is braced for a fight. "This is a tough regulation for people to swallow," he says. "The arsenic is naturally occurring. Nobody did anything wrong to get it there, so people don't feel they should have to pay to remove it. And how can I make them? If you do the math, the EPA is nobody. I've got 70 people working for me—75 on a good day—and that's for all water laws, not just arsenic. In a given year, we have 20,000 providers in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. So yeah, we'll have arsenic violators."

Including Fallon?

"Absolutely not," Maas says. "Once we go after somebody, we don't give up. We'll bring Fallon into compliance."

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