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Experts in Arsenic Removal Stand Poised to Offer Information and Solutions as the EPA Finalizes the New Arsenic Standard
Based on results of the September 2001, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study requested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it can be determined that more than 1 in 5 Arizonans drink water with unsafe levels of arsenic. Areas surrounding Phoenix and Tucson are some of the hardest hit.
On November 1, the EPA announced it would lower the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. The impact on Arizona is significant--approximately 28 percent of all public water companies in Arizona will be required to enhance treatment to ensure the safety of their water supplies. This figure does not take into account the many Arizona citizens served by private wells.
"We think it is extremely important for every citizen of Arizona to be aware of this issue and learn all they can about the quality of their water," says Rich Cavagnaro, vice president of sales and marketing for Apyron Technologies, an Atlanta-based material science company with expertise in water quality solutions. "Although the EPA has lowered the standard, it will be five years until all water systems are required to comply with the law. We recognize that many families do not want to wait that long. They want to ensure the safety of their water now."
The Results Are In--Arsenic Exposure Leads to Increased Cancer Risk
In September, the NAS, a private organization that includes 190 Nobel Prize laureates, produced a cumulative study on the health effects associated with exposure to arsenic--one of three EPA-commissioned reports. The NAS concluded that the cancer risk associated with arsenic exposure is higher than previously thought, stating that people who drink water with arsenic levels of 3 ppb have a one in 1,000 risk of developing cancer. At 10 ppb, the risk is three in 1,000.
For the past two decades, the EPA's maximum acceptable level of risk for all drinking water contaminants has been one in 10,000. The results of the NAS report were a prime factor in leading the EPA to reduce the standard to 10 ppb.
Scientists and government agencies have studied the health effects of exposure to arsenic for years. According to a 1999 report published by the NAS, one out of every 100 individuals who regularly drinks water that contains 50 ppb of arsenic will fall ill with a potentially fatal form of cancer. Studies have indicated that children are at a much greater risk than adults.
Non-cancer health effects include gangrene, limb loss, keratosis, neurological effects, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, immunological and endocrine disorders, hematological disorders and reproductive/developmental problems.
In addition, arsenic is an accumulative enabler, meaning that people who are pre-disposed to various cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments, are more likely to fall ill. Studies have also shown that arsenic may pass through the placenta, causing birth defects, and that exposure to it may negatively affect children's intelligence levels and ability to learn.
Interest in Solutions to Problem Growing Rapidly
Based on data provided by the EPA, the National Resources Defense Council estimates that as many as 56 million people in the United States drink water with arsenic at unsafe levels. U.S. citizens living in New England and the western regions of the country--especially in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin -- are the most affected by high levels of arsenic.
Consumer demand for an affordable solution is rapidly rising. In fact, according to the 2001 National Consumer Water Quality Survey, 9 out of 10 Americans have concerns about the quality of their tap water with 65 percent of respondents indicating that they would pay for a home water treatment device to reduce arsenic if it were present in their drinking water.
There is some concern regarding the cost associated with lowering the arsenic standard. Recently, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) completed its EPA-commissioned cost analysis. Although the NDWAC acknowledged that a lowered standard will prove to be expensive for water systems nationwide, the council also suggested that Point-of-Use (POU) applications--filtration devices attached under a household's sink to treat the water that comes from the faucet--be given greater consideration as a method of tackling arsenic contamination. The council's cost evaluations show that communities as large as 10,000 can benefit financially from this approach. According to the EPA, more than 97 percent of the water systems affected by the new standard are small systems that serve less than 10,000 people.
"We agree with the NDWAC--POU applications, especially high-performance adsorptive technology, will provide individual consumers as well as small to mid-sized communities with the most successful and cost-effective way to remove dangerous levels of arsenic from drinking water," says Rich Cavagnaro of Apyron. "In the past several years, we have helped hundreds of people to treat their water, and now that the EPA has lowered the standard, we stand poised to provide additional information and solutions."
A New Standard Does Not Mean Immediate Relief
The EPA has publicly recognized that the desired Maximum Contaminant Level for arsenic is 0 ppb. However, due to the high costs associated with bringing the standard down to this level, the agency commissioned three studies prior to making the new rule to examine the overall benefits of a lowered standard for arsenic, the potential cost of implementation and the health effects associated with exposure. The EPA considered levels of 3, 5, 10 and 20 ppb as it received the results of the three studies, as well as public commentary on the issue.
Although the EPA set the new standard at 10 ppb on November 1, municipal water systems will have until 2006 to comply with the new law. That means that many Arizona citizens will be exposed to high levels of arsenic for another five years, which could potentially threaten the health of many families.
In addition, many citizens in suburban and rural areas surrounding Phoenix and Tucson obtain their drinking water from private wells. These water supplies are not tested and regulated by the state, and therefore they often have high levels of naturally occurring arsenic.