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Science Meets Policy In Shaping Water’s Future
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May 28, 2001
Volume 79, Number 22
CENEAR 79 22 pp. 12
ISSN 0009-2347
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Possible shift in EPA thinking could loosen drinking-water standard


The Environmental Protection Agency last week indicated that it might change its scientific thinking on how arsenic causes cancer. Such a shift could lead EPA to set a looser drinking-water standard for the element than the 3- to 20-ppb range now under consideration.

Christine Todd Whitman, President George W. Bush's EPA administrator, suspended the Clinton Administration's 10-ppb arsenic standard for drinking water that was issued in January following decades of study. Although announced in April, the withdrawal did not become official until a formal notice was issued on May 22.

Whitman's move leaves in place the nation's 50-ppb standard for arsenic, set in 1942, until EPA reviews health effects data and estimates of the cost of implementing a new standard ranging between 3 and 20 ppb. EPA will issue the new regulation by February 2002.

The notice says EPA will reconsider its scientific assumption that any amount of arsenic, even minuscule doses, can cause cancer and that the risk of developing the disease rises proportionally with dose. Alternatively, the agency could determine that there is a threshold below which exposure to arsenic does not cause cancer. This could lead EPA to set an arsenic standard looser than 10 ppb. The agency's notice invites the public to "provide evidence" supporting a standard higher than 20 ppb.

Erik D. Olson, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the move "stunningly arrogant and wrongheaded." The group plans to challenge the agency's suspension of the 10- ppb standard in court, in part because Congress required EPA to issue a new standard by June 22, 2001.

EPA also suspended a requirement that utilities must tell customers about arsenic in their water at levels of 5 ppb and higher. Currently, water suppliers have to provide this information only for concentrations of 25 ppb and higher.

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