Posted on April 24, 2001


Howard Hughes Would Be Proud

Arsenic scare is sheer madness


Daniel Clark


When celebrated lush W.C. Fields was asked why he didn't drink water, he replied that he couldn't drink anything that fish -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- spawn in. He probably meant this as a joke ... but then again, maybe he didn't. Whatever the case, the recent hysteria over President Bush's "poisoning" us with arsenic makes Fields' concern look like sound reasoning by comparison.

An environut before his time

As soon as Bush took office in January, he put a 60-day hold on a slew of last minute orders signed by outgoing President Clinton. After studying the Clinton regulations, Bush decided to rescind many of them, including one intended to tighten restrictions on arsenic in drinking water. Since the Clinton standard had not taken effect, all Bush has done is maintain the same standard under which America has somehow survived since 1942. Critics who are publicly accusing Bush of "putting arsenic in our drinking water," may not necessarily be lying, but they certainly don't have enough regard for the truth to have bothered to find out what it is.

The current standard of arsenic allowed in drinking water is 50 parts per billion (ppb). That's a water-to-arsenic ratio of twenty million to one. That's one ounce of arsenic dispersed within 78,125 gallons of water. That's hardly cause for alarm, considering that human consumption of tiny amounts of arsenic is perfectly normal, since it is contained in volcanic and sedimentary rock, and subsequently in the surrounding ground water.

The Clinton regulation would have reduced the allowable amount by 80 percent, to 10 ppb. While this may make drinking water, to some barely perceptible degree, safer, the cost of compliance would be devastating to certain western states. New Mexicans, for instance, have calculated that the new standard would have cost their state at least $400 million.

Such a burden would run afoul of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995, which requires legislators and regulatory agencies to "prepare an analysis of costs, benefits and concerns before issuing regulations that mandate actions requiring spending"; "develop a process for considering input from state, local and tribal governments"; and "select the most cost-effective or least burdensome alternative for achieving the objectives of a regulation." But then, what court is going to rule that a trivial matter such as the law should supersede the need to protect The Children from poisoning?

Under pressure from environmentalists, EPA chief Christie Whitman has indicated that the Bush administration is going to lower the arsenic standard once it has conducted its own study. Since Whitman's miscommunication with Bush over the Kyoto Protocol, it would be hasty to assume that she is accurately representing the administration's position. That in mind, it remains more than a little disturbing that she is speculating that the standard may be lowered dramatically below even the Clinton level, to as little as 3 ppb. (Note to W: About those token "pro-choicers" you've appointed ... they're liberals. Surprised?)

To the elitist Left, the question of whether or not there is any concrete benefit to the proposed new regulation is secondary. What's more important is their use of the issue to show how much they care about The Little People. Film producer Mike Medavoy gave an unintentionally comical illustration of this when he said that the arsenic regulations don't affect him and his friends "because we all drink Evian. But what about the people who can't afford Evian?"

There are people out there who can't afford Evian? Oh no! Is Senator Kennedy aware of this? We must begin distributing pretentious mineral water stamps at once.

Euro, Euro, uber alles?

Like fussy neighbors envious of someone else's lawn ornaments, Bush's critics point out that the European Union has already established a 10 ppb standard, under the assumption that they'll be successful in maintaining it. Of course, when your drinking water is as saturated as theirs is with sewage, the poor arsenic doesn't stand a fighting chance. Perhaps one day the United States will adhere to Europe's clean water standards, and maybe then we'd start drinking Evian like water. Until then, however, there's no reason to believe we're at a measurably greater risk than Mr. Medavoy and friends.

The origin of the current arsenic scare is a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that developed Western nations should impose stricter standards, in light of its examination of arsenic poisoning in West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. Citing that study, the U.N.-created World Health Organization decreed that all nations should accept the 10 ppb standard, hence the EU's compliance.

To dictate U.S. policy based on a third-world model is simply not rational. For starters, the tainted well water involved in the NAS study contained over 1,000 ppb of arsenic. To extrapolate from there that anything over 10 ppb is too much is wholly conjectural. Add to that the WHO's own acknowledgment that the apparent arsenic-related health problems cited in the study were dramatically exacerbated by malnutrition and hepatitis-B, maladies not now ravaging greater Albuquerque. The number of other unconsidered variables that might come into play is nearly limitless.

As we know from abundant experience, casting doubt on the scientific validity of environmentalists' claims does little to dissuade them from their mission. This is because specific questions about specific issues are peripheral to the utility of those issues in the ongoing war against industry. While most arsenic found in ground water has accumulated there naturally, there are lesser amounts which are contributed by the mining of ore. If lowering the standard will do anything to prevent the mining companies from, in enviro-jargon, "raping the Earth," then any health benefit, or lack thereof, is relatively unimportant.

Subordinating the accuracy of factual arguments to their devotion to a greater cause has liberated environmental activists to make outrageous claims with impunity. Take this statement from Erik Olson, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council: "There are already tens of millions of Americans who have been and continue to be exposed to potentially lethal levels of arsenic in their drinking water." Really? At least twenty million Americans? That's about one-fourteenth of the U.S. population.

If 50 ppb of arsenic in drinking water has the potential to trigger a modern bubonic plague, then why haven't we heard of the tens of millions of arsenic-related deaths during the 59 years in which this standard has been in use? Why have we not heard of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who were killed by arsenic in the days when it was prescribed as a tonic, when it used as a pesticide on cotton plantations, or when there were no limits on its use in preserving wood?

Such creative abuse of facts isn't relegated to the issue itself, however -- the regulatory process is fair game also. Senator and former vice presidential candidate Honest Joe Lieberman (D, Conn.), depicting President Bush as impetuous for rescinding the regulation, advised the public to "Remember that the regulations being dismantled were painstakingly put together with extensive due process and opportunities for comment."

If you believe that one, you'll also believe that violent Republican mobs prevented all the votes from being counted in Florida. If the 10 ppb standard had been as responsibly enacted as Lieberman claims, it would have taken the form of legislation, not a dictatorial stroke of Bill Clinton's pen.

Hughes: what, me worry?

At least as offensive as the Democrats' misrepresentations is their willingness to manipulate people's phobias. This arsenic scare campaign is being directed at the same sector of the population that gets sucked in by all those "too much milk can kill you" reports which run on local newscasts. In its latest effort to deter self-reliance in the name of government, the Democratic Party is trying to make people fear their own faucets.

Nearly everyone who has ever heard of eccentric film producer and aviator Howard Hughes is in agreement that his worries about germs were paranoid lunacy. How is this whole ruckus about arsenic so much different? It was not irrational of Hughes to understand that germs exist and that they can be harmful. Where he went astray was in failing to give the human body credit for resilience.

This is the philosophy promoted by the environmentalist Left, not just in regard to physical state of man, but also to that of animals, trees, bodies of water, and even the Earth itself. We are all so vulnerable, so helpless, that any encounter with any impurity could mean torturous and complete destruction.

Hughes, a multi-billionaire, had the means to protect himself from whatever threats he perceived, by turning his home into a tissue-covered, antiseptic bunker. But what about the rest of us? Not only aren't we equipped to protect ourselves, but we don't even know what needs to be done. Many of us wouldn't even know we were endangered, if we didn't have benevolent liberal activists to tell us.

This lack of awareness only compounds our helplessness in the eyes of politicians who view our lives as managerial challenges. Senator Lieberman, in his 2000 convention speech, used the metaphor of feeding pigeons to describe his service to the American voters. If he and his party are willing to assume responsibility for our nourishment, then surely it is in their interest, given how fragile we are, to clean every molecule of arsenic out of our water. Then, maybe, they can turn a hose on those naughty fish.



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