Protecting public water supplies by removing dangerous
pollutants sounds like common sense to most people. No doubt that is why, after
George W. Bush rescinded a Clinton regulation mandating lower levels of arsenic
in drinking water, opinion polls showed a spike of citizen outrage and prompted
a promise of “further study” by his abject environmental administrator,
Christine Todd Whitman.
The results of her studies, of course, will depend quite
heavily on who does the studying. When Mr. Bush announced his original foolish
decision to nullify the arsenic cleanup, he dishonestly implied that his
predecessor had imposed a hasty, “last-minute” decision that wasn’t based on
“sound science.” Never mind that the Clinton regulation was the result of one
of the longest, most exhaustive research efforts in the history of the
Environmental Protection Agency, beginning almost two decades ago. In Mr.
Bush’s parlance, “sound science” means anything that will please the lobbyists
and contributors from the mining and water industries.
Despite Ms. Whitman’s earnest pledges, the pressure from corporate
interests may well prevail over public health in the long run. Reducing the
permissible level of arsenic in public reservoirs from 50 parts per billion to
10 parts per billion, as the Clinton regulation would have mandated, will be
expensive to those same interests. Once public attention is successfully
diverted from the issue, the lobbyists will remain hard at work.
Even before the White House flip-flop, various voices could
be heard arguing that the benefits of reducing arsenic in the reservoirs wouldn’t
be worth the cost. A Wall Street Journal
editorialist pointed out that arsenic is a “naturally occurring” substance and
thus nothing to be too worried about. A Slate
columnist cited a think-tank report as proof that Mr. Bush had made a “heroic
and correct” decision by voiding the Clinton regulation. The tiny number of
lives saved would simply not be worth the enormous amount of money involved, he
It may not be necessary to mention that such happy talk
emanates from well-to-do journalists whose bottled water is unlikely to contain
any taint of arsenic. It is necessary to point out that they are all wet.
The facts were detailed with damning effect on the front
page of The Wall Street Journal (not
exactly an organ of Greenpeace) on April 19. According to numerous studies
cited in the Journal article, arsenic
is a known human carcinogen, whether from man-made or natural sources, at
levels not much higher than 50 ppb. In countries like Taiwan and Chile, where
the problem has been carefully reviewed by epidemiologists, arsenic
contamination has been shown to cause cancer of the lung, kidney and bladder. A
prominent scientific expert told The Journal that “at the level of 50 parts
per billion, arsenic is killing a lot of people in Chile.”
But the truly troubling news revealed by reporter Peter
Waldman was the ongoing effort by American corporations and their hired
academics to suppress the truth about arsenic’s dangers. The Chilean scientist
quoted above said that he had been approached by representatives of ARCO, which
owned a huge copper mine in Montana. In 1996 the Americans wined and dined him
at a fancy Santiago hotel and, as he recalled, “They showed a lot of interest
in my work …. Then, in the middle of dinner, they offered me money to do research
for them. They said they had a lot of money and could create a center here to
do research to show the E.P.A. that the impact of arsenic is not as high as was
claimed. They were clearly saying they’d pay me for results that helped them.”
The ARCO representatives
said they didn’t recall making any such offer. But a Harvard scientist who
undertook a study of arsenic’s effects for ARCO says that when his results
prompted him to urge an immediate reduction of the carcinogen’s levels to 20
parts per billion, the company shut down his project and tried to suppress his
Opponents of strict industrial regulation frequently
complain about “junk science” causing environmental hysteria. What the Journal story shows is that the chief
instigators of “junk science” are corporate leaders who seek to frustrate the
So far, the Bush administration’s attitude toward scientific
integrity seems sufficiently elastic to please its biggest campaign
contributors. Last month Mr. Bush appointed as his new “regulation czar” a
Harvard professor named John Graham, who has earned a reputation for crusading
against fundamental health, safety and environmental regulations from his
academic perch. Although he advertises himself as a scientist, Mr. Graham is in
reality a “risk-analysis” expert with no degrees in hard science. His Harvard
Center for Risk Analysis is financed by scores of corporations and trade
associations, notably including the lobbying outfits sponsored by the
petroleum, chemical, automobile and food industries.
This is the man who will have the final word on Ms.
Whitman’s “further studies” of arsenic. It seems safe to predict that her
humiliations have only just begun.
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