Campaign to Save Our Environment Plays Loose with the Truth on Arsenic, by Tom Randall

The “Campaign to Save Our Environment,” a coalition including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), has begun running a television commercial so misleading it poses potentially serious harm to both the environment and the public interest.

The commercial, running in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Maine, uses graphics such as skull and crossbones over glasses of water to attack President George W. Bush for postponing the setting of standards for arsenic in drinking water. According to a copy of the commercial, supplied by PIRG,1 over the ominous graphics a woman’s voice says:

“Given the choice, would you want more arsenic in your water? Or less?”

“Doctors and scientists agree there should be less.”

“But President Bush says: That’s too expensive.”

“He is proposing to allow more arsenic in your drinking water — as much as twice the amount that doctors, scientists and health organizations say is safe.”

All very scary. Just not true.

These groups are exercised about President Bush’s decision to examine the regulation, issued in the closing days of the Clinton Administration, to reduce acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water.

Under Clinton, this rule was scheduled take effect in 2006.

Under Bush, a rule to reduce arsenic levels is still scheduled for 2006.

So, contrary to the commercial, Bush is not proposing more arsenic for your drinking water. The opposite is true.

Bush is allowing the old arsenic standard to remain in place until 2006, exactly the same length of time it would have under the Clinton rule. The only difference between the Bush and Clinton policies is that Bush has directed the National Academy of Sciences to take nine months to determine precisely what the new arsenic standard should be.

The Clinton Administration said the standard should drop in 2006 from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. Bush wants to see if the National Academy of Sciences agrees with this standard, or if it would recommend a different one.

Bush’s reason is quite simple. Contrary to the commercial, there is substantial disagreement on the safe level of naturally-occurring arsenic in drinking water. NRDC, one of the ad’s sponsors, has said it should be lower than the 10 parts per billion set in the Clinton rule. Others say higher is satisfactory. The National Academy of Sciences hasn’t said at all. Now this most respected scientific body will have the opportunity to do so.

The claim that President Bush said lowering allowed arsenic levels is “too expensive” is also a distortion of fact. What he said was that additional lowering of arsenic levels is costly and would be even more so if the wrong standard were set.

The cost of meeting the new arsenic standard will significant for many communities, particularly small ones. The costs will be even higher if the standards are later found to be incorrect, and new standards are imposed, requiring even more modifications to municipal water systems.

Bush is aware of a key fact the commercial fails to acknowledge: There is a very real possibility that setting unnecessarily low standards will cause some small municipalities to simply go out of the water supply business. If this happens, homeowners will be forced to rely on individual, untreated private wells. This would expose these Americans to even higher levels of arsenic.

So Bush is not only toughening the arsenic standards, he is improving the Clinton regulation to protect Americans even more.

If Bush did not consult with the National Academy of Sciences, a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences could follow. This is a seeming “law of nature” in Washington, which leads a politically-motivated Congress to pass a law or a politically-motivated president to enact a rule which makes worse the problem it is alleged to solve. In this case, it could lead to more arsenic in the drinking water of some Americans, not less.

The groups sponsoring the anti-Bush arsenic commercial seem to have fallen prey to the law of unintended consequences.

In view of the commercial’s distortions, and the fact that these distortions may actually harm the people the sponsoring groups purport to protect, the responsible thing to do would be to pull the commercial from the air.

End the hysterical rhetoric. Let the National Academy of Sciences do its work.


Tom Randall is the Director of Environmental and Regulatory Affairs for The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.  


1 The commercial storyboard was obtained by The National Center for Public Policy Research from PIRG spokesperson, Russell Jones, by e-mail. Plans to air the commercial were contained in a PIRG press release dated June 6, 2001.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.