The politics of poison

Arsenic is nearly synonymous with poison. But most people don’t realize that they consume small amounts of it in the food they eat and the water they drink.

Recent research suggests even small levels of arsenic may be harmful. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been prepared to say since 2008 that arsenic is 17 times more toxic as a carcinogen than the agency now reports.

Women are especially vulnerable. EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.

The EPA, however, hasn’t been able to make its findings official, an action that could trigger stricter drinking water standards. The roadblock: a single paragraph inserted into a committee report by a member of Congress, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found. The paragraph essentially ordered the EPA to halt its evaluation of arsenic and hand over its work to the National Academy of Sciences.

The congressman, Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, said he was concerned that small communities couldn’t meet tougher drinking water standards and questioned the EPA’s ability to do science. But a lobbyist for two pesticide companies acknowledged to CPI that he was among those who asked for the delay. As a direct result of the delay, a weed killer the EPA was going to ban at the end of 2013 remains on the market.

The tactic is among an arsenal of tricks used by industry and lawmakers to virtually paralyze EPA scientists who evaluate toxic chemicals. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order seeking to stop political interference with science. The EPA unveiled a plan to evaluate far more chemicals each year than had been done during the George W. Bush or Bill Clinton administrations. In the last two years, however, it’s completed only six.

It’s now unclear when the agency’s arsenic review will be finished, even though scores of studies have linked arsenic not just to cancer, but also to heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

Wendy Brennan, seen with her granddaughter, took part in a study that found arsenic levels in her well water that were higher than federal standards. Credit: Amy Temple for CIR

Wendy Brennan, seen with her granddaughter, took part in a study that found arsenic levels in her well water that were higher than federal standards. Credit: Amy Temple for CIR

Meanwhile, people like Wendy Brennan, who lives in rural Maine with her two daughters and two grandchildren, are left to worry about all the arsenic-tainted water they’ve consumed. Brennan participated in a study by Columbia University researchers, who found levels of arsenic in her well water that were more than five times the federal standard.

“My eldest daughter said … ‘You’re feeding us rat poison,’ ” Brennan said. “I said, ‘Not really,’ but I guess essentially, that is what you’re doing. You’re poisoning your kids.”

Then, another shock: The researchers reported that children who drank water containing arsenic – even at levels that met the federal standard – scored six points lower on IQ tests than children who drank clean water.

“Your job as a mother is to give your kids the best,” said Brennan, who installed an $800 filter that removes arsenic from her water. “Just by giving my kids juice … giving them cups of water, which you are supposed to do, I was actually giving them a sediment that’s settling in their body, and I may not know for 10 years if it’s affected them.”

David Heath, The Center for Public Integrity

Key findings:

Read the full investigation here.

About the map: Arsenic makes up part of Earth’s crust and is commonly found in groundwater. In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the drinking water standard from 50 parts per billion of arsenic to 10 parts per billion. The agency initially had proposed a limit of 5 parts per billion but faced criticism that it would be too costly for water companies to hit that target.

Arsenic is known to cause a variety of cancers and has been linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has found an association between arsenic levels below 10 parts per billion and IQ deficits in children.

This map is based on arsenic readings from 45,000 wells collected by the U.S. Geological Survey throughout the country, going back four decades. In addition, the states of Texas and Minnesota provided data gathered on arsenic in private wells. In several other states, few readings were available.

This was produced as part of a collaboration among the Center for Public Integrity, The Center for Investigative Reporting and Michigan Radio.


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