Let’s hope U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson hasn’t really seen the science.
It was the Idaho Republican who derailed an assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that showed arsenic is even worse than previously thought, according to The Center of Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. As a result, stricter standards for arsenic in drinking water – supported by the latest research – and a ban on a certain harmful pesticide have been put off as well.
That’s how politics and industry influence can stifle actions meant to protect everyday Americans. An update to arsenic standards is long overdue, and the EPA – whether it is ruling on arsenic or thousands of other chemicals under its oversight – shouldn’t be blocked from doing its job because of a few behind-the-scenes meetings and some well-placed donations.
The EPA assessment in question was the result of a five-year review of hundreds of independent studies, culminating in a draft report sent in 2008 to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
By that time, the EPA had found that arsenic is 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than previously thought, and the agency wanted to adjust the drinking-water standards accordingly.
But the process was slowed by the George W. Bush administration, and by the time a draft of the arsenic assessment went public in 2010, it had been on the shelf for about three years.
According to the journalism organization’s report, foes of stricter standards, led by two companies that use arsenic in their popular – and profitable – pesticides, locked on to that delay. They said the report could not be considered complete, pointing to 300 studies about arsenic published since the assessment draft was finished.
That assertion, which falsely made it seem like the EPA was selectively choosing data, was inserted into numerous reports as the main argument for scuttling the assessment. Once the final assessment was delayed – again – so, too, was a ban on the pesticides that was contigent on the assessment.
The journalism organization links language related to the 300 studies to Simpson, who has held meetings with numerous groups opposed to stricter arsenic standards and has connections to a lobbyist for the two pesticide companies.
Pressed to explain donations from the lobbyist, Simpson cut off the interview.
Meanwhile, the evidence against arsenic is growing more damning. It’s well-known as a poison at high levels, and research is showing that even small amounts can be dangerous.
A decade ago, a study out of Columbia University found a link between arsenic exposure and poor brain development in Bangladesh, where IQ levels in children got progressively lower as levels of arsenic ingestion increased.
The same researchers conducted a similar test on 272 schoolchildren in Maine, where arsenic often seeps into well water from bedrock. The study, released in the spring, found that IQ levels fell by up to 5 or 6 points in kids from the Augusta area and York County who were exposed to arsenic.
What’s more, the study looked at arsenic levels as low as 5 parts per billion, well below the EPA drinking-water standard of 10 parts per billion.
And it’s not just intelligence levels that are being affected.
“I jokingly say that arsenic makes lead look like a vitamin,” Joseph Graziano, who worked on the Maine study, told the journalism organization. “Because the lead effects are limited to just a couple of organ systems – brain, blood, kidney. The arsenic effects just sweep across the body and impact everything that’s going on, every organ system.”
TESTING THE WATER
A change in the EPA standard would not affect Maine directly, since wells are not covered under the standard.
But it would help places like Naples, Fla., by banning an herbicide that led to high arsenic levels in water.
And it likely would spur action in Maine, where some homeowners did not take steps to test their wells or treat their drinking water until the EPA cut the standard from 50 parts per billion in 2001. It would do the same in New Hampshire, which has similar problems with arsenic in well water but lags behind Maine in the number of homeowners who test their wells.
In any case, EPA standards should be based on science, and not on the whims of a congressman with murky motives.