Arsenic and old logic

Posted: Mar 30, 2001 12:00 AM
President George Bush is giving every sign of an independent spirit. He had to know that his decision to reconsider regulations regarding arsenic in the drinking water would set the environmentalist hounds baying after him -- but he did it anyway. That is courage. The critics played their part to a T. "Bush Sticks it to the Environment," editorialized the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen said that those who doubt the wisdom of the Environmental Protection Agency's decision are in the grips of a "corporate mindset that favors profits over lives." And nearly every environmentalist who has debated this issue in the past week has asserted, without evidence, that critics of the EPA are bought-and-paid-for shills for industry. (There is never any such thing as an honest difference of opinion in a debate with the left.) For those readers who suspect that there may be two sides to this question, read on. The EPA's strongest argument is that the National Academy of Sciences examined arsenic in America's water supply in 1999 and concluded that current levels (50 parts per billion) were too high. But what is the best level? To reach this conclusion, you must do something that the sky-is-falling environmentalists resist with all their power -- balance benefits against costs. At high levels, arsenic can cause cancer and other diseases. But at low levels, it is virtually harmless. It appears naturally in broccoli and other vegetation, as well as in ground water. In the decisions we make every day, we almost never make absolute safety our lodestar. If we did, we'd never drive a car, use a lawnmower, fly in a plane, take a pill or crawl out from under our beds (and even there, absolute safety eludes us because dust mites can aggravate allergies and lack of sun can cause rickets). Life is not risk free, and most people understand that a rule of reason is necessary. We make cars safer and therefore more expensive -- to a point. But we don't armor plate our cars because that would make them too expensive to fuel. And we don't reduce speed limits to 5 miles per hour (as George Will instructed a naive George Stephanapolous on "This Week") because that would be paying too high a price in convenience and economic efficiency for the sake of safety. Though the environmentalists always push for the maximum amount of safety when implementing regulations, none of us does this in our daily choices. The chances of dying each year in a work-related accident are 1 in 20,000 for a college professor, 1 in 5,000 for a quarry worker, 1 in 3,000 for a police officer and 1 in 52 for a president of the United States. According to the EPA, reducing arsenic levels to 10 parts per billion will save 28 statistical lives per year. That's the benefit. Now even if you don't accept at face value the costs the water industry estimates such a standard would require -- $600 million per year and $6 billion in capital outlays -- it is clear that the new standards will carry costs. EPA's estimates are that implementing the 10 parts per billion standard would cost $210 million per year. But critics like Robert Hahn and Jason Burnett of the American Enterprise Institute estimate that a 10 parts per billion standard will actually cost $65 million for each life saved. In other words, the costs outweigh the benefits. Richard Wilson, a professor of physics at Harvard, writing in Regulation magazine, has argued that cost-benefit analysis cannot be stripped of its emotion until we arrive at an agreed cost per life saved. He notes that the EPA itself has suggested that health and safety regulations are reasonable if they cost no more than $4 million per statistical life saved. By that standard, the arsenic rule flunks the test. This doesn't mean we should stick with the 50 parts per billion standard -- only that we should measure these things rationally and not lose our heads over every toxin that lurks in the muck.