Arsenic and Old Facts. (Commentary)

By Niskanen, William A. | Regulation, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Arsenic and Old Facts. (Commentary)


Niskanen, William A., Regulation


The Burnett-Hahn and Wilson analyses of the proposal to reduce the allowed concentration of arsenic in drinking water differ primarily on one issue: Is the dose-response relationship between arsenic concentrations and cancer sublinear (Burnett-Hahn) or linear (Wilson)? As an economist who has not read the underlying studies, I am not qualified to resolve that issue. Nor, I suspect, is anyone else.

Local standard But the lack of a qualified analyst is irrelevant. The current arsenic controversy is a classic case for which no common national standard can be correct because all of the benefits of a given standard for arsenic accrue to those who drink water from a specific water system. In that case, there is every reason to respect the standard selected in each water system, based on the marginal cost of reducing the arsenic concentration specific to that system and the amount of insurance against health risks that the local community wants to buy.

Moreover, every household has the opportunity to choose a tighter standard than that chosen by the local water system. Because drinking water is usually only about one-tenth of one percent of total household water usage, the cost of a separate household drinking water control or of bottled water maybe less than arsenic controls on all of the water supplied by the local water system.

In the absence of any external effects of the arsenic standard chosen by each local water system, the only national public good is succinct, accurate, and timely information about probable health effects of alternative local choices - a public good that is all too often in short supply. The Safe Drinking Water Act should be changed to permit the appropriate division of responsibility between the local community and the federal government.

Minor quibbles As for the preceding articles, I offer the following comments:

Burnett and Hahn, in a move that has become a reflex response by environmental economists, propose to allow trading of the rights to consume arsenic in drinking water. …

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