Arsenic-laced Presidential Campaign?

When last we left the controversy over the Bush administration’s spring 2001 revision of the standards for arsenic in drinking water (search), the Democratic National Committee was running television commercials featuring a little girl asking, “May I please have some more arsenic in my water, mommy?”

More than two years later, the Democrats are still trying to convince us that President Bush tried to poison America by toughening the regulatory standards for arsenic in drinking water.

Amid new arm-waving over the administration’s plan to reduce mercury emissions (search) from power plants, Democrat presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Lieberman recently said, “First arsenic, then mercury, what poison will the Bush administration seek to permit into our environment next?”

We can expect many more such comments during the 2004 campaign season from Democrats as they rant and rave about the president’s record on the environment. Their fearmongering about arsenic, however, will lack a factual basis.

A new study reports no increased rates of cancer in the two largest U.S. populations consuming drinking water containing relatively high levels of arsenic.

University of California-Berkeley researchers examined the populations of six counties in California and western Nevada. These residents consumed drinking water with arsenic levels near 100 micrograms per liter (μg/l) -- a level that is about twice the pre-Bush standard for arsenic in drinking water (50 μg/l) and about 10 times the revised standard (10μg/l).

“Overall, no clear association was identified between bladder cancer risk and the exposures found in our study,” reported the researchers. There was no association between arsenic in drinking water and bladder cancer even among study subjects with 40 years of exposure to the relatively high levels of arsenic.

These results aren’t really surprising because there never has been any data linking exposures to arsenic in U.S. drinking water with cancer -- no doubt that’s why the arsenic standard had survived for 60 years before the Bush administration revised it.

Though there are some data seemingly indicating that Taiwanese populations with exposure to extraordinarily high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water have increased rates of bladder cancer, these apparent increases in risk are not observed until exposures reach 640 μg/l.

You might think the combination of much lower exposures in the U.S. and no observed risks at those lower exposures would be a good enough reason not to burden U.S. water systems with expensive regulatory standards, but you’d be wrong.

Make-believe risk often serves as a sufficient excuse for environmental regulations and making up risks is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relishes most, and does best.

When the EPA has no data indicating actual cancer risk from real-life exposures to a particular substance, the agency employs a mathematical trick called the “linear no-threshold” (LNT) model that, by its very definition, simply concocts risk.

The LNT model dictates that any exposure to a supposedly cancer-causing substance increases cancer risk and that cancer risk increases in a linear fashion with increasing exposure.

So if the EPA links a substance with cancer based on high-dose laboratory animal tests or studies of human populations involving high exposures, the agency then employs the crystal ball-like LNT to guess-timate levels of “risk” for much lower levels of exposure.

In the case of arsenic, the EPA used the Taiwanese data as the starting point to order that U.S. drinking water standards be revised from 50 μg/l to 10 μg/l.

Needless to say, the new study exposes the revised EPA standard as being without scientific foundation. The Berkeley researchers notably remarked, “Interestingly, the overall risks were below those predicted using data from highly exposed populations in Taiwan.”

That’s not hard to believe given that the supposed risks predicted from the Taiwan data by the LNT model were totally fabricated.

And, no, the study was not paid for by the “arsenic industry.”

First, arsenic occurs naturally in drinking water. Next, the study was funded by the federal government and conducted by Cal-Berkeley’s Allan H. Smith -- a strong proponent of more stringent arsenic regulations.

About 4,000 water systems serving 11 million people nationwide would be in violation of the revised arsenic standard if it were to take effect now. It will cost about $200 million annually to bring these water systems into compliance with the new standard.

I only wish I could afford a television commercial where a little girl asks, “Can we waste even more taxpayer money on junk science, mommy?”

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

Respond to the Writer