White House Yields to NRDC Suit; Lets EPA Release New Arsenic-in-Tap-Water Standard

WASHINGTON (May 24, 2000) - Bowing to legal pressure from NRDC, the White House's Office of Management and Budget agreed to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to propose new, more stringent regulations for arsenic levels in drinking water. EPA announced the proposal late this afternoon.

OMB, which had been blocking the proposal since mid-February, gave EPA the go-ahead a week after NRDC filed suit against OMB and EPA. OMB released the proposal on May 17, the night before its lawyers were slated to appear before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to discuss NRDC’s suit.

"This proposal is a triumph of science over a 25-year-long industry campaign to obstruct an arsenic standard that would protect the public," says Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney. The National Academy of Sciences last year found the current standard to be unsafe and called for EPA to revise it "as promptly as possible."

The new proposal would slash the allowable levels of arsenic in tap water tenfold -- from 50 parts per billion to 5 parts per billion (ppb). NRDC has called for a lower standard of 3 ppb, while industry has called for a 10 ppb level. Regardless, OMB has instructed EPA to consider a standard of as high as 20 ppb. There will be a 90-day public comment period following today’s announcement.

"There must be something in the water over at OMB," says Olson. "Why else would OMB lobby for a scientifically unjustifiable level that is twice the one that industry already agreed to meet?"

EPA’s current standard was set in 1942, before scientists knew arsenic causes cancer. Since 1974, the agency missed three congressional deadlines requiring the agency to revise the outdated, unsafe standard.

A 1999 NAS report said arsenic in drinking water:

  • causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer;
  • harms the central and peripheral nervous systems, heart and blood vessels, and causes serious skin problems, including pre-cancerous lesions and pigmentation changes; and
  • may cause birth defects and reproductive problems.

NAS concluded that EPA’s current standard for arsenic in tap water "does not achieve EPA’s goal for public-health protection and, therefore requires downward revision as promptly as possible."

"It’s time to act. The health of millions of Americans is threatened by arsenic in their water," says NRDC Project Attorney Adrianna Quintero. According to a February 2000 NRDC study based on EPA data from 25 states, a conservative analysis indicates that more than 34 million Americans in at least 6,900 communities are drinking tap water supplied by systems containing arsenic at levels that pose unacceptable cancer risks. NRDC’s best estimate -- based on what it believes to be the most reasonable analytical techniques -- found that as many as 56 million Americans in more than 8,000 communities have been drinking water with arsenic at unsafe levels.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 400,000 members nationwide, served by offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

For additional information on arsenic in drinking water, see the NRDC report Arsenic and Old Laws, or the frequently asked questions about its findings.