SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, & SOCIETY:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in late October 2001 that the agency will allow considerably less arsenic in drinking water than current rules allow. The announcement was the second time the new standard had been adopted; the tougher standard was initially announced by the administration of outgoing President Bill Clinton in January 2001, then suspended by the administration of President George W Bush two months later.
Under the old standard, arsenic in concentrations as high as 50 parts per billion was allowed in drinking water; this standard dates back to 1942. In 1999, a National Research Council panel reviewed the arsenic standard and recommended that it be lowered because the 50-parts-per-billion standard placed people at an increased risk for cancer. In January, the Clinton administration announced a new standard of 10 parts per billion. Officials from states with naturally high levels of arsenic in drinking water objected, saying the new standard would be too costly to meet. The standards were suspended in March, and a National Academy of Sciences panel was convened to examine the risk of cancer from arsenic. The panel found that the risk of cancer caused by arsenic in drinking water was even higher than previously thought. The EPA then announced that the 10-parts-per-billion standard would be adopted by 2006.
Throughout 2001, a $1 billion lawsuit filed in federal court against several telecommunications companies charging that cell phones caused brain cancer raised interest in the question of whether cell phones do cause health problems and how the courts will handle the inconclusive scientific studies on the issue. The suit was filed in federal court in Baltimore, Maryland, by a doctor who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998. The court reviewed the scientific data on the subject and allowed the case to proceed in January 2002.
The case generated particular interest because cell phones have become very widespread and because there is very little reliable scientific data as to their impact on health. The largest studies on cell phones have found no link between cell phone use and brain cancer, but the studies are far from conclusive. Some of the studies did not distinguish between cell phone users who used cell phones only in emergencies and those who talked routinely on cell phones. Cell phone technology has changed in recent years, raising the possibility that they may have been more or less dangerous at different times. In addition, cell phones only have been used widely only over the past five years, while brain cancer takes at least 10 years to develop, so studies might not show an increase in brain cancer until several years in the future.