May 2001: Volume 43, Number 5
Arsenic -- Traces of Surprise
by Carlos David Mogollon, WC&P Executive Editor
While it came as a surprise March 20 when new USEPA chief Christine Todd Whitman announced the Bush Administration would be setting aside the last-minute revision its predecessor ordered to the arsenic in drinking water rule, lowering the MCL from 50 ppb to 10 ppb, it was no shock.
After all, Bush, in freezing virtually all "midnight regulations" of the outgoing Clinton Administration in January for review, hinted as much. What was surprising was the extent to which Clinton-era environmental initiatives were "rolled back" over the past few months. On April 8 -- after the arsenic announcement and similar pullbacks on forestry, mining, clean air, global warming, etc. -- the Washington Post reported the GOP was targeting 45 additional rules to overturn.
While some feel strongly both ways on this, I have mixed emotions on the arsenic move. On one hand, there's no denying costs of complying with the new rule would seriously affect bottom lines of water treatment systems (particularly small ones least able to afford it) and thus ratepayers. Some may argue the proposal would simply bring the U.S. standard in line with the World Health Organization guidance on arsenic, but the WHO offers 10 ppb as a "guidance" only. It does not have the force of law that an MCL would. It does not mandate expenditures inevitably to be passed along to consumers, doubling or tripling rates, particularly in Southwest communities such as Albuquerque, N.M. On the other hand, multiple studies worldwide point to higher health risks of consuming arsenic even in trace quantities (and 10 ppb already was a compromise to the 3 or 5 ppb initially floated). As to efficacy of these studies, ask a Bangladeshi or Taiwanese native with blackfoot disease from arsenic poisoning.
Regardless, the AWWA and National Governors Association were among those applauding Bush's move -- perhaps because they represent those who'll have to make the hardest decisions to implement the rule. At the WQA convention in Orlando a week later, the strong lineup of arsenic seminars seemed a bit undercut. Still, conference attendees noted point-of-use/point-of-entry water treatment systems will benefit if only from increased public attention on the issue. Former Culligan technical guru and advisor to WQA and NSF, P.J. Regunathan pushed the idea a marketing blitz could be adopted that this industry's equipment can lower arsenic to non-detect levels, suggesting standards be rewritten to allow certification to the MCLG -- or health goal -- of zero.
Almost simultaneously, that idea took a blow when Whitman in a public radio interview said there was no effective arsenic treatment "at the tap." While the USEPA has never fully embraced ion exchange for POE arsenic reduction because of the risks of dumping, RO is listed as an approved POU technology and several states are testing POU/POE devices to that end. WQA technical director Joe Harrison said WQA may use the gaffe as an opportunity to update Whitman and lobby for industry interests. This isn't to say POU/POE should be considered a panacea on arsenic or the Bush Administration after its cost-benefit review might not return to 10 ppb as the limit for drinking water (although 20 ppb was being floated as an alternative).
Said Harrison: "I don't see a problem in taking another 60 days to see it's correct, but I'd prefer it be 10 or lower. I wouldn't want to see it higher, because there are health effects. The goal is to have zero. And, from our standpoint, for an individual home, the costs are very reasonable to treat for arsenic. If you could just do POU, you could get it below 10 or even 5 ppb. But I don't think the city of Albuquerque could manage home treatment because of their size. It's not a question of buying a product that works, but making sure every home has one and it works in every home and you have access to make sure they're properly serviced-not to mention that people are educated to know how to use it… For small systems, mobile home parks, resorts and small towns where you can be more comfortable getting access to the homes, I think POU treatment is going to be the answer."