When the Environmental Protection Agency's new chief, former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman, announced in March that the Bush Administration would set aside the agency's recently tightened regulations on arsenic in drinking water, environmentalists and health groups shouted out in disbelief.
What kind of president, they asked, wouldn't try to lessen the amount of poison that Americans drink?
But a joint study by a conservative and a liberal think tank suggests that by nixing the stricter arsenic regulations, the Bush administration may have actually saved lives in the long run.
The rule the Clinton-era EPA had originally proposed — which the Bush administration halted — would have "result[ed] in a net loss of about 10 lives annually," says the study, from the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.
Arsenic can be a deadly poison that one might associate more with Agatha Christie whodunits than one's own life. And yet Americans drink it every day. There's evidence that it may play a crucial role in helping reproduction when consumed at low levels, but at higher levels, it's been linked to bladder and lung cancer.
In January, the EPA announced that it would require that public-water suppliers would have until 2006 to reduce arsenic levels by 80 percent, from the current 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.
But on March 20, Whitman said the EPA would withdraw the proposed arsenic standard and instead see whether the health benefits and the cost would call for changing the current rule.
The AEI-Brookings study, written by researchers Jason K. Burnett and Robert W. Hahn, foreshadowed the Bush administration's decision.
Although the direct effect of reducing the level of arsenic would save about 10 lives each year, it would sap the public of as much as $200 million per year. That money would come from other health-and-safety programs.
In Albuquerque, N.M., alone, where arsenic appears naturally in the water supply in higher concentrations than the rest of the country, the initial clean-up could cost between $50 million and $350 million. This would make it among the worst-hit water systems in the nation, and could hike up water bills by between 13 percent and 76 percent, the Albuquerque Journal reported in 1999.
The study goes on to say that the costs of the stricter standard would come from Americans' private funds, meaning that there would be less money to go to health care, education and automobile maintenance.
"When people have fewer resources, they spend less to reduce risks," the report says. "The resulting increase in risk offsets the direct reduction (of deaths from applying the stricter arsenic standard)."
By Burnett and Hahn's estimates, diverting funds would actually contribute to the deaths of twice as many as the new regulation would save, meaning that, overall, the EPA's stricter arsenic standard would actually take 10 lives a year.
Furthermore, the study criticizes the EPA's study research into the amount of arsenic the human body can safely metabolize. Burnett and Hahn argue that humans can safely ingest more arsenic than the EPA assumes.
But over at the Sierra Club, the director of the environmental-quality program, Ed Hopkins, said it was the Joint Center study that was relying on shoddy research.
"These numbers are really made to sound scientific, but the study rests on a lot of assumptions," he said.
Among those assumptions: the idea that money for the stricter regulations would automatically take away from other programs and thus increase risk; that arsenic doesn't have a hand in other cancers it might be linked to, such as reproductive cancer and skin cancer; that the filtering systems put in place for the arsenic standard wouldn't help defray the cost of other health programs by purifying water of other pollutants.
"We question cost-benefit analyses like this because we think they are subject to all sorts of interpretation and manipulation," he said. "It's far easier to judge the cost of regulation than to judge the benefits of it."
Kenneth Green, director of the environmental program at the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute, counters that Hahn and Burnett bring up ironclad arguments against the EPA standard.
"If it's going to kill more people in the short term than it's going to help in the long term, then it's not a good regulation," he said from his Austin, Texas, office. "The study takes a holistic approach to managing risk."
Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market organization based in Washington, D.C., said the EPA rule would also effectively shift the risks to poorer, rural areas in the U.S.
"Communities that can't afford it will disconnect to avoid regulation, which means they will switch back to wells or drink from untreated surface waters," she said. "In the end, the regulation could mean people could be drinking dirty water with even higher concentrations of arsenic."