US government sticks with stricter lead rule but prolongs arsenic decision still further

Under intense pressure from environmentalists for some display of ‘green’ credentials, the Bush Administration has announced that it will keep a Clinton era rule on the strict reporting of lead levels but will further delay implementation of a rule lowering arsenic in drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on 17 April that it will proceed with a rule significantly expanding the information available to the public about lead emissions in their towns and communities (see related story), ensuring that information on hundreds of thousands of pounds of lead emissions never previously reported will become publicly available.

The new rule requires more companies to report on the lead they use and release into the air, water or land. Previously, the rule required facilities report lead and lead compound emissions if they manufactured or processed more than 25,000 pounds annually or used more than 10,000 pounds annually, but under the new rule, the reporting threshold will be lowered to 100 pounds annually for each facility and will begin this year.

Lead is highly toxic, persists indefinitely in the environment and bio-accumulates in humans and aquatic organisms. “Poisoning from exposure to lead still harms too many children each year in America,” commented EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. “I am confident this action is an important step toward protecting the health of children and expanding communities’ right-to-know. Lead poisoning can cause learning problems, brain damage and hyperactivity in our children. Despite the significant progress we have made in reducing lead levels in children’s blood, the President believes we can do more.”

A day later Whitman announced that the EPA was extending by a further nine months the recent delay of a strict rule enforced in the last days of the Clinton Administration (see related story and related story), which lowered the level of arsenic permitted in drinking water from 50 to 10 parts per billion. The reason behind the move, Whitman said, is that although she recognises that the level needs to be lowered, “the scientific indicators are unclear as to whether the standard needs to go as low as 10 ppb”.

Whitman said that she was concerned that an initial study had been rushed, and a more precise scientific review was required. The EPA is asking the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to perform an expedited review of a range of three to 20 parts per billion for the establishment of a new drinking water standard. The NAS already has reported that the present standard of 50 parts per billion is too high, but it did not specify what a protective level should be.

“I have said consistently that we will obtain the necessary scientific review to ensure a standard that fully protects the health of all Americans, and that we will establish that standard in a timely manner,” Whitman said. Many smaller water systems and the communities they serve may have to absorb additional costs to meet the new standard. We want to make sure those costs are fair and fully justified. A new standard will not be fully protective of the health of Americans unless we make the proper plans now to ensure that all drinking water systems will be able to meet it.”

The further delay was heavily criticised by environmental groups however, some of which see the move as evidence of the administration being in the pocket of mining companies. “By ignoring decades of study and considering doubling the amount of arsenic allowed in our water, President

Bush is making an unsafe, irresponsible decision that pleases the mining industry at our families’ expense,” said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director. “If President Bush hadn’t

caved to the mining industry, we would be on the road to protecting Americans at the standard recommended by the US Public Health Service in 1962. But instead, President Bush’s proposal (a possible 20 parts per billion) could double Americans’ cancer risk from arsenic in their drinking water. Americans don’t want their families drinking arsenic, but under President Bush’s proposal, Americans could drink twice as much arsenic as the World Health Organization recommends for

third-world countries,” Pope continued.

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