After Flint water crisis, watchdog urges Texas to warn residents about arsenic

An environmental watchdog group analyzed a decade worth of water data in Texas, finding that 65 communities have exceeded federal limits on arsenic. The state has reassured residents that the water is still safe to drink.

After analyzing more than a decade worth of data, an environmental watchdog group reported Monday that it found levels of arsenic in drinking water in 65 rural Texas communities exceeding the actionable threshold set by the federal government.

But there's little agreement over what level of arsenic in water presents a health risk.

State health officials advised communities that the water is safe to drink, says the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project in a report. The report authors liken the situation to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich.

It is calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.

Informing consumers is an important strategy to protect public health,” the report says. “But information that is confusing or misleading is toxic to public understanding and public trust, and undermines action to make drinking water safe.”

Communicating risks associated with exposure to drinking water contaminants can be difficult. Public health researchers have linked high dose exposure to health complications. However, when it comes to lower concentrations, the literature is mixed.

The current actionable limit for arsenic in US drinking water, as set by the EPA, is 10 parts per billion. The EIP data found concentrations ranging from 9 to 85 ppb.

Current EPA regulations require water utilities to tell residents about the health risks of a lifetime exposure to arsenic concentrations above the federal limit of 10 ppb (parts per billion). Texas also requires the consumer advisories to state, “This is not an emergency ... You do not need to use an alternative water supply,” according to the group’s findings.

The Environmental Integrity Project finds the state’s message to residents to be misleading.

State officials say the elevated arsenic levels reported by the nonprofit project are not an immediate health threat because the federal standard for arsenic is “overly cautious,” reports The Texas Tribune.

Arsenic levels in drinking water “are higher than we’d like for them to be and that’s why we’re working to get them below the standard, but it’s not a ‘Stop drinking your water’ issue,” Michael Honeycutt, director of the toxicology division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told the Tribune.

Dr. Honeycutt cited studies that arsenic in water is safe until it reaches levels of 100 to 150 ppb, which no communities were close to reaching, according to data in the report.

The report does point out that some of the affected water systems are already being upgraded to remove arsenic. Others may need financial assistance to do so, it says. But in the meantime, the nonprofit is urging state officials to be more direct about the dangers of arsenic. It points out that states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine and Washington tell people not to drink water with more arsenic than 10 ppb.

“The drinking water tragedy in Flint, Mich., reminds us how important it is for government to communicate clearly with residents who are drinking contaminated water,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at EPA, said in a report announcement.

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