Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

The Need for Congressional Action to Finance Arsenic Reductions in Drinking Water

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

The Need for Congressional Action to Finance Arsenic Reductions in Drinking Water

Article excerpt

Introduction

Increasing scientific data are available on the harmful effects of arsenic in drinking water on human health. Despite previous efforts to ensure that drinking water is safe, arsenic remains a potential health hazard in both urban and rural settings across the U.S. From 2004 to 2009, approximately 1,724 regulated water systems serving over 11 million people exceeded the current 10 parts per billion (ppb) standard (Environmental Working Group, 2009). Since water in different geographical areas contains different levels of arsenic, the risks are unequally distributed across the country, and some of the highest levels occur naturally in some of the poorest areas, such as New Mexico (American Cancer Society, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Many systems remain out of compliance and are unable to afford necessary upgrades. Communities unable to afford improvements remain vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with higher levels of arsenic exposure.

Despite scientific and political consensus that the standard should not be less than 10 ppb (Arsenic Water Standard Delay Amendment, 2001; National Research Council [NRC], 2001), political hurdles remain in implementing it. Since 2003, Congress has failed to provide long-term funding to public water systems to help finance the cost of compliance with the federal arsenic standard for drinking water and reduce the risk of adverse health effects such as cancer. Investing in the country's drinking water infrastructure would also strengthen the nation's economy by creating jobs and a more productive workforce (Krop, Hernick, & Frantz, 2008). New scientific data and bills recently proposed in Congress to revise and reauthorize the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program (DWSRF), which helps support states in upgrading their drinking water systems, highlight the need for improvements. As drinking water is a necessity of life, it is essential that Congress renew DWSRF to enable all Americans who rely on and trust public water sources to access clean drinking water.

Discussion

Arsenic in Drinking Water

Arsenic may enter drinking water naturally through volcanic action, erosion of rocks, or forest fires, or through human activities such as mining, coal burning, copper smelting, animal feeding operations, or industrial use (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [U.S. EPA], 2010a). Higher levels of arsenic are generally found in groundwater sources, which small communities often use for drinking water, than in surface water sources such as lakes and rivers, which larger cities rely upon (U.S. EPA, 2010a). Arsenic found in drinking water is primarily inorganic (NRC, 1999). In the U.S., the average arsenic level in groundwater is less than or equal to 1 ppb, and Western states have the greatest number of regulated water systems in the country whose levels exceed 10 ppb (Tiemann, 2007). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has verified twelve technologies for arsenic removal that have the potential to improve protection of human health and the environment (U.S. EPA, 2007).

Health Consequences of Arsenic Exposure

Arsenic in drinking water can have serious human health consequences and also significant economic consequences for the public health system. The National Research Council (NRC) completed a review of all available health data on arsenic exposure through drinking water in 1999 (NRC, 1999) and published an updated review in 2001 (NRC, 2001).

Arsenic is a group A carcinogen by the oral route (U.S. EPA, 2011a). In 2001, NRC reported that exposure to 10 ppb of arsenic in drinking water is associated with a risk of 30 cancer deaths per 10,000 people drinking the water--30 times U.S. EPA's acceptable rate (NRC, 2001). Exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer (NRC, 2001). It might be harmful to the central and peripheral nervous systems and the circulatory system, cause birth defects, affect reproduction, and cause precancerous skin lesions and changes in skin pigmentation (NRC, 2001). …

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