Arsenic Flap and 'Sound Science'

Article excerpt

The point, said President Bush, was to do things in the proper way.

After eight years in office, the Clinton administration had waited until its final days to rocket out regulations limiting arsenic in drinking water. The Bush team was pulling back, being prudent, taking the high road of responsibility.

The arsenic regulations were being reexamined, Mr. Bush said March 20, so that "we can make a decision based on sound science."

The implicit charge: The lame-duck Mr. Clinton had issued arsenic rules based on politics and hope, not hard facts. Funny thing, though. That phrase, "sound science": Clinton used it, too.

Early in his tenure, he issued Executive Order 12898, which aimed to, among other things, "ensure that the [EPA's] environmental policies are based on sound science." As for haste, hadn't the EPA been studying the effects of arsenic in drinking water, with an eye on new limits, for ... 17 years?

In a city that thrives on discord, the need to base decisions on "sound science" is a baseline concept that Democrats and Republicans alike can agree on. The problem is that everyone has a different idea of what exactly sound science is.

And that's significant because, in the end, science (sound or otherwise) affects political decisions on everything from drinking water to energy policy.

"Over the last 40 years, and accelerating over the last 20, science has become very political in Washington," says Steve Milloy, a Cato Institute scholar and webmaster of Junkscience.com.

The quest for scientific "truth," Mr. Milloy says, has devolved into a battle among interest groups that push a point of view, commission studies to prove they're right, and then lobby to change laws and regulations.

The road from science to policy is long, and the opportunities for quarrel and input are many. To understand just how complicated the process is, it is instructive to look at a single case, like the current row over the rules on arsenic and drinking water.

Arsenic and old rules

The EPA has been considering tightened arsenic rules since 1986. The specific limits issued by Clinton had been under formulation for five years, since 1996, when amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act required the current standard be examined.

That standard, 50 parts per billion, has been in place since 1942, when the Public Health Service created it, citing "safety of water supplies."

The service's standard was very concrete. In essence, it means every one billion gallons of drinking water is safe to consume if it contains less than 50 gallons of arsenic. But when the service created it, there was no hint as to how it arrived at the number.

To help find an updated standard backed by more than guesswork, the EPA contracted a study from the National Research Council. The NRC, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that can be hired to do research, convened a panel of 16 scientists and doctors.

In 1999, that group came back after years of studying data from around the world and issued a report saying the EPA "should develop a stricter standard for allowable levels of arsenic in the nation's drinking water as soon as possible."

The panel proposed no new standard, but it said the current standard of 50 parts per billion could lead to a 1 in 1,000 chance of bladder cancer among males.

Left with the task of coming up with a new standard, the EPA went with a sort of multiple-choice option. It put forward four possibilities (from 3 to 20 parts per billion) and gathered comments from citizens and interest groups.

Those numbers may sound infinitesimal, but the stakes were high. Risk assessment, in the end, always comes down to cost versus benefits. And the difference in cost between 5 parts per billion and 10 parts per billion was estimated by some groups to be billions of dollars. …