Arsenic flap and 'sound science'

The point, said President Bush, was to do things in the proper way.

After eight years in office, the Clinton administration had waited until its final days to rocket out regulations limiting arsenic in drinking water. The Bush team was pulling back, being prudent, taking the high road of responsibility.

The arsenic regulations were being reexamined, Mr. Bush said March 20, so that "we can make a decision based on sound science."

The implicit charge: The lame-duck Mr. Clinton had issued arsenic rules based on politics and hope, not hard facts. Funny thing, though. That phrase, "sound science": Clinton used it, too.

Early in his tenure, he issued Executive Order 12898, which aimed to, among other things, "ensure that the [EPA's] environmental policies are based on sound science." As for haste, hadn't the EPA been studying the effects of arsenic in drinking water, with an eye on new limits, for ... 17 years?

In a city that thrives on discord, the need to base decisions on "sound science" is a baseline concept that Democrats and Republicans alike can agree on. The problem is that everyone has a different idea of what exactly sound science is.

And that's significant because, in the end, science (sound or otherwise) affects political decisions on everything from drinking water to energy policy.

"Over the last 40 years, and accelerating over the last 20, science has become very political in Washington," says Steve Milloy, a Cato Institute scholar and webmaster of Junkscience.com.

The quest for scientific "truth," Mr. Milloy says, has devolved into a battle among interest groups that push a point of view, commission studies to prove they're right, and then lobby to change laws and regulations.

The road from science to policy is long, and the opportunities for quarrel and input are many. To understand just how complicated the process is, it is instructive to look at a single case, like the current row over the rules on arsenic and drinking water.

Arsenic and old rules

The EPA has been considering tightened arsenic rules since 1986. The specific limits issued by Clinton had been under formulation for five years, since 1996, when amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act required the current standard be examined.

That standard, 50 parts per billion, has been in place since 1942, when the Public Health Service created it, citing "safety of water supplies."

The service's standard was very concrete. In essence, it means every one billion gallons of drinking water is safe to consume if it contains less than 50 gallons of arsenic. But when the service created it, there was no hint as to how it arrived at the number.

To help find an updated standard backed by more than guesswork, the EPA contracted a study from the National Research Council. The NRC, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that can be hired to do research, convened a panel of 16 scientists and doctors.

In 1999, that group came back after years of studying data from around the world and issued a report saying the EPA "should develop a stricter standard for allowable levels of arsenic in the nation's drinking water as soon as possible."

The panel proposed no new standard, but it said the current standard of 50 parts per billion could lead to a 1 in 1,000 chance of bladder cancer among males.

Left with the task of coming up with a new standard, the EPA went with a sort of multiple-choice option. It put forward four possibilities (from 3 to 20 parts per billion) and gathered comments from citizens and interest groups.

Those numbers may sound infinitesimal, but the stakes were high. Risk assessment, in the end, always comes down to cost versus benefits. And the difference in cost between 5 parts per billion and 10 parts per billion was estimated by some groups to be billions of dollars. That's the money it would take local governments and private companies to upgrade water-treatment plants to meet the new standards.

In the end, the EPA chose 10 parts per billion - the same standard used by the European Union and recommended by the World Health Organization. The rule was set to take effect three days before the Bush administration stepped in and called for a new review.

Is that your final answer?

But even before the Bush White House got involved, voices on the right and left criticized the the new limit. Public-health and environmental groups said that the lowest possible standard, 3 parts per billion, was feasible and should be the goal.

Water companies and business interests said there was no solid evidence that arsenic caused cancer even at 50 parts per billion. So, who's right?

Richard Wilson, a Harvard University physics professor and a member of the Society of Risk Analysis, says that is anyone's guess. "I probably would have settled on 10 parts per billion," he says. "But I could give you a number of arguments why it could be anywhere in a massive range."

A big reason, he says, is that there has been no serious study of effects of arsenic in drinking water in the US. Researchers have been relying on data from places where more thorough studies have been done, such as Taiwan and Bangladesh.

But legitimate questions exist about those studies' relevance for Americans. "Things like diet can dramatically affect cancer rates," says Dr. Wilson. "The question is, how much are Bangladeshis like Americans?"

Until more study of the problem is done, it will be impossible to know what the correct answer is - if it's ever known.

"The critical thing is that those of us who know science know there is a lot of uncertainty," says Bruce Lewenstein, a professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Science isn't just a machine that cranks out the right answer."

Unsound science?

Still, the new review of the arsenic rule goes on. The EPA has commissioned a study from the National Research Council, and a new panel will examine the standard and report back in August.

"The Bush administration was right to junk the Clinton rules on arsenic," Cato's Mr. Milloy says. "But now [EPA head] Christie Todd Whitman is going to do her own little junk science review. She's going to decide what the answer should be and then come up with a rationale."

Milloy and others say the new panel is short on people with experience on arsenic. Some who support allowing higher arsenic levels will remain on the panel, while some of the people who called for more stringent standards have been removed, they say.

Wilson, who served on the National Academy of Sciences, defends the overall independence of the academy, but says it is willing to hear ideas and suggestions from those who pay for NRC studies.

More funny numbers

Research done within the EPA that doesn't rely on outside expertise is subject to more straightforward politicization, some say.

One former EPA official, who claims to have left the agency because of the effect politics was having on EPA decisions, says "sound science" often meant adjusting figures.

"It wasn't, 'We have to do it this way because....' But there were a few occasions when I was told, 'This should be the answer and you figure out how to get there.' "

Often, the official says, it was not a question of deliberately choosing a wrong number, but simply choosing one and making a case for it. In Washington, where the question of who's right and wrong in policy debates frequently yields a relative result, numbers offer seemingly concrete answers.

For his part, professor Lewenstein says it is seldom clear which set of assumptions and answers is correct in complex questions of science. And politics will almost always intervene in Washington - which isn't necessarily a dangerous thing.

"There's going to be some log rolling: 'You give me the Kyoto accord, and I'll give you arsenic,' " he says. "That's certainly not good. But I have enough faith that, even with a stacked committee, they will come up with a solid standard."

The problem isn't in the intermingling of science and politics, he says.

It is, rather, how politics attempts to use science. "In the end, the label of 'good science' is a just rhetorical weapon, and unfortunately most people don't understand that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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