News & Views » Columns

Swallow this

Last week’s decision by the Bush administration to rescind stricter standards for arsenic in drinking water leaves a bitter taste in many a Michigander’s mouth. Wells in at least nine state counties, including many in the northern half of Oakland County, are laced with the stuff, which can cause everything from bad headaches to at least four kinds of cancer. Based on studies that go back to the early 1960s, the Clinton administration finally lowered the arsenic standard from 50 to 10 parts per billion (ppb) at the end of last year — the same number that the European Union and the World Health Organization have embraced. Thanks to Bush, municipalities that draw drinking water from naturally tainted aquifers and mining companies whose processes often increase arsenic levels in nearby water tables are off the hook again.

“I think it is incredibly irresponsible,” says Dr. Michael Harbut, a Wayne State University assistant professor and toxicologist specializing in environmental and occupational health in Southfield. “For (Bush Environmental Protection Agency Director) Christine Todd Whitman to say that there wasn’t scientific consensus about this opinion is intellectually bankrupt. The rest of the world has agreed on 10 parts per billion [ppb]. This was not some original number that EPA came up with. In fact, the scientific data points to there being no such thing as a completely acceptable level.”

Harbut says going back to 50 ppb could increase U.S. cancer rates by 1 percent. That means “thousands of cancers more each year. We look to the government to protect us, and right now the government is saying, ‘Hey, protect yourself.’”

The Sierra Club says that the new administration’s decision has little to do with science.

“This suggests the Bush administration is caving to the mining industry’s demands to allow continued use of dangerous mining techniques,” says Carl Pope, the organization’s executive director. “They need to focus more on the needs of Americans and less on the demands of special interests.”

Or, as Harbut puts it, the decision is “quite responsible to shareholders of polluting industries, but irresponsible to public health.” (Click here for an MT profile of Harbut and his long-running fight against arsenic.)

Jim Dulzo contributed to News Hits, which is edited by MT News Editor Curt Guyette. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail cguyette@metrotimes.com

comment