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Arsenic and
‘Sound Science’

UE News, May 2001

By David Kotelchuck

On Friday, March 30, President George W. Bush announced his decision to withdraw the Environmental Protection Agency regulations, proposed by President Clinton, to lower the allowed levels of arsenic in drinking water. "We pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based on sound science," Bush said. (My emphasis — D.K.)

The current standard for arsenic in drinking water is 50 parts arsenic per billion parts of water, a standard that has stood unchanged since 1942. The Clinton Administration has proposed lowering this standard to 10 parts per billion (ppb), the standard recommended by the World Health Organization since 1993. In 1998 the European Union adopted the 10 ppb limit as a mandatory standard for all its member countries, most of the large countries in Europe.

Is the proposed new drinking water standard based on sound science? You bet it is. During the past two centuries alone, miners and other industrial workers have been exposed to arsenic, and have been made ill and died from its effects. Also, in copper mining communities especially, the children of miners and others in these communities have become sick and died from arsenic exposure. In short, for two centuries and more, industrial workers and their families have served as canaries, showing the world by their illnesses that arsenic is indeed a toxic industrial chemical.

What do scientists know about the dangers of arsenic? We know that exposure to arsenic causes lung cancer and skin cancer. Since ancient times people have known that at very high dose levels arsenic is a potential poison — for example, Napoleon Bonaparte was apparently murdered by his captors who fed him arsenic. At lower exposure levels, when ingested by mouth, arsenic causes irritation to the digestive tract, decreased production of red and white blood cells, nerve disorders of the arms and legs, and skin lesions such as dark and light spots on the skin and "corns" on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

When inhaled the arsenic appears most likely to cause lung cancers. And when it comes in contact with the skin, it can cause skin irritation, which can lead to skin cancers.

(Note: Most industrial and natural exposures to arsenic happen by exposure to so-called inorganic arsenic compounds, that is, compounds of arsenic with atoms of oxygen, chlorine and sulfur. The health effects listed above are due mainly to these compounds. So-called organic arsenic compounds, compounds of arsenic with carbon and hydrogen atoms, are used much less frequently and appear to be less toxic. Only rarely are humans exposed to pure arsenic, either in the air or in drinking water.)


As a result, in 1979, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted a standard for inorganic arsenic compounds, including pure arsenic exposure as well. The allowed airborne exposure level for an eight-hour workshift is very low, only 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, with an action level of 5 micrograms per cubic meter. (Most OSHA standards allow exposures of up to tens of milligrams per cubic meter, levels about a thousand times larger than allowed for arsenic.) This standard requires engineering controls such as improved ventilation and administrative controls such as regular housekeeping, as well as clean, full-body protective clothing provided weekly by the employers at their own expense. Annual medical exams must be provided at no cost to the employee for those exposed to 30 days or more per year above the action level. Also, no drinking or smoking is allowed in affected work areas, but the employer must provide a clean, properly ventilated lunchroom for all employees.

Who is exposed to arsenic? The main commercial and industrial uses of arsenic compounds is in pesticides, particularly in the U.S. for weed killers. Arsenic-containing pesticides are also widely used in agriculture, especially in fruit crops. The compounds most often used in pesticides today in the U.S. are the less toxic organic arsenic compounds, but inorganic compounds are still used regularly in many places. Until about a decade ago, many pesticide companies and greenhouses regularly used lead arsenic — how’s that for a nasty, toxic compound? So, if your workplace has to be regularly sprayed, either indoors or outside around the plant buildings, your local’s health and safety committee should request the MSDS for these chemicals — you are absolutely entitled to them — and check whether they contain arsenic. If they do, they should be replaced by less toxic pesticides, for example, pesticides which contain naturally occurring pesticide agents like the pyrethrums. (And, by the way, check out the weed killers you use at home — the cheap and dirty ones often contain arsenic — and replace them. It may cost more money, but your health and your family’s are worth it.)

Other sources of arsenic in the workplace environment? Arsenic compounds are widely used by the wood products industry to pressure-treat lumber. Also, arsenic compounds are used in wood preservatives, for fence posts and telephone poles, which remain outdoors for decades. Coal and other fossil fuels naturally contain low levels of arsenic, so fossil fuel-burning power stations emit large amounts of arsenic into the air. Many landfills contain arsenic-laden ash from coal-burning power plants, and many waste-chemical disposal sites contain large quantities of arsenic. One of the largest, most toxic sources of workplace and community arsenic exposures were emissions from copper smelters, especially in the Rocky Mountain states and those of the Pacific Northwest. (Copper ore often naturally contains arsenic compounds, so when the copper ore is smelted, arsenic is released as well.) However, all U.S. copper smelting plants are now closed, and the workers in Chile and other countries must deal with the harmful effects of these toxic compounds. But because arsenic is a metal-like element, it does not disappear in the environment, and so ground and runoff water in many parts of the U.S. is still heavily contained with arsenic from mills and plants closed many years ago, and from recent and past agricultural uses of arsenic.

Also, arsenic compounds occur naturally in the environment (the OSHA standard refers only to arsenic exposure in the workplace). We ingest about 25 to 50 micrograms of arsenic a day in our food. Some fish and shellfish contain elevated levels of arsenic, although usually of the less toxic organic type. And, of course, ground water, used for drinking in mineral-rich areas like parts of the Southwest, may contain relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic. These are typically at much lower levels than workplace exposures, but they affect very large human populations and these are also long-term (chronic) exposures.

But do we know that the low levels of arsenic in drinking water are dangerous? Yes, we do. Remember, arsenic levels cause both lung and skin cancers. For years scientists have looked for so-called safe, threshold levels of all kinds of human cancer agents — and have not found any. So we have to treat all exposure levels of cancer agents as capable of causing cancer. This means that any level of arsenic in drinking water must be considered as cancer-causing. Of course, the less the exposure we have to a cancer agent the better off we are. The Clinton Administration EPA estimated that reducing exposure levels to arsenic in drinking water from 50 to 10 parts per billion would prevent 2,000 to 5,000 lung cancers during a human lifetime. And unfortunately most of these cancer causes would be fatal — five-year survival rates for lung cancers have been in the single digits (less than 10 percent) for decades, and have only recently moved up to low double-digit levels.

To drive the dangers of arsenic in drinking water home, in Bangladesh and eastern India today, thousands of residents are dying annually from high levels of arsenic in their drinking water, drawn from ground wells. High natural levels of arsenic in the soil and massive agricultural runoff from agriculture have combined to create a national crisis in Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populous countries.

The issue of drinking water regulations in the U.S. is not ‘sound science, it is the clean-up costs of properly treating the drinking water. If President Bush were honest with the American people, he would admit that we know that arsenic in drinking water is dangerous, but that it would be costly for some communities to treat and clean it. And what is worse for him and his party, many of these communities are in regions that vote heavily Republican.

Just as Americans are generous enough to help their neighbors in times of emergencies, they would respond to an appeal to spend some tax monies — and these monies would be small in federal budget terms — to help their neighbors avoid sickness through construction of proper water-treatment facilities. Meanwhile, the nation would achieve cleaner, safer levels of drinking water for all. Sounds like a sensible idea to me.

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