Arsenic regulation could jeopardize public safety, Mercatus center urges

In drafting new arsenic limits, the federal government could put the safety of some Americans at risk, said the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

ARLINGTON, VA, May 8, 2001 — By demanding that local communities adhere to stringent federal regulations governing the level of arsenic in drinking water, the federal government could have put the health and safety of some Americans at risk, according to a public interest comment submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by scholars at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

"Forcing communities to reduce arsenic levels takes money that could be used to invest in schools, new emergency response equipment, or traffic safety equipment," said Susan Dudley, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center and author of the comment. "EPA's approach to setting the standards for arsenic will determine whether communities can make investments that have a proven track record of improving public health, or will be forced to divert scarce resources to reducing arsenic to levels not justified by available scientific evidence of health risks."

The EPA has proposed to delay a regulation issued on the last day of the previous administration that called for cutting the amount of arsenic in drinking water systems from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb by 2006. Concerned that it was not justified by the latest scientific information, EPA plans to subject the standard to rigorous scientific review over the next 9 months.

Arsenic is a natural element that enters drinking water sources through rocks and soil, particularly in the western United States. The burden of reducing natural levels of arsenic found in some drinking water systems, therefore, will be borne by the local communities themselves. Without any change to federal regulations, communities that are concerned about elevated levels of arsenic in their drinking water can install controls now and individuals can place filters in their homes.

"Communities that are concerned about arsenic can take steps to reduce levels now. The question is, should Washington force a uniform standard on every community without a clear scientific basis, and an understanding of the health tradeoffs involved?" Dudley said.

By EPA's estimates, the costs to individual households of moving away from the current nationwide standard of 50 ppb to 10 ppb are high, while the public benefits - if any - are low. The Mercatus Center estimates that the proposed regulation will cost the American public at least $1.4 billion per year over and above any health benefits.

"EPA's proposed delay while it gets the science right cannot be faulted. Public health will not be compromised by EPA taking the time to reevaluate and understand the risks, benefits and tradeoffs involved in setting new standards for arsenic," Dudley said. "Even if the rules were not delayed, drinking water systems would not have been required to meet the new standard until 2006, and nothing about the delay will prevent communities concerned about arsenic from investing now in tighter controls."

For a complete copy of the public interest comment, visit

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is an education, research, and outreach program that works with scholars, policy experts, and government officials to bridge academic theory and real world practice. This comment is one in a series of Public Interest Comments from the Mercatus Center's Regulatory Studies Program, and does not reflect an official position of George Mason University.

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