50,000 Exposed to Toxic Levels of Arsenic in Drinking Water “Not an Emergency," Say Officials

Carey Wedler
March 16, 2016

(ANTIMEDIA) Texas According to a new report, for over a decade, over 50,000 Texas residents have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in their drinking water. In spite of the dangers of arsenic, a carcinogen, and quantities of the chemical that violate federal safety standards, local officials have repeatedly told residents the water is safe to drink.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a charitable organization that focuses on research, reporting, and media outreach, released a report Monday documenting the exceedingly high levels of arsenic — and the negligence of Texas safety officials. Pursuant to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, public water supplies may not have levels of arsenic that exceed 10 parts per billion (ppb), but according to the EIP, Texas officials have failed to properly notify residents of the health risks.

According to EIP, “data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) shows that the average arsenic concentrations in 34 communities serving 51,000 people have exceeded that health-based standard for at least the last decade, many at levels several times higher than the arsenic limit.”

Further, “the average arsenic concentrations in 65 Texas community water systems serving more than 82,000 people has exceeded that health-based standard over the last two years.”

Pursuant to federal law, if local authorities find levels of arsenic above 10 ppb, they are required to inform residents of the elevation, as well as the risks of cancer associated with levels that high. However, states are also allowed to create their own wording for the warning. In Texas, that wording includes, “This is not an emergency … You do not need to use an alternative water supply” — even while the same advisory alerts residents that “some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the MCL [maximum contaminant level] over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

The report criticizes the TCEQ’s notices to residents, citing several states, like Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, and Washington, who advise residents not to use water supplies when arsenic is detected above 10 ppb. Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the EIP, noted that in Texas, “The public is not being advised to avoid this contaminated water — not to drink, not to cook with it. Instead, the state’s public notices [about potential high levels of arsenic in drinking water] say that people don’t need to find an alternative water source. That’s not appropriate for contamination that’s persisted for so long.”

Further, the EIP report suggests 10 ppb may be too lax a regulation to begin with.

If anything,” the report says, “the most recent science suggests that the 10 ppb arsenic standard is not protective enough and that the IQ of children can be damaged at much lower exposures.

Multiple communities’ water supplies not only have unsafe levels of arsenic, but levels that exponentially exceed the apparently inadequate 10 ppb federal safety standard. Nine communities serving over 21,000 people had levels of arsenic between 20 and 30 ppb; three communities providing water to nearly 4,000 people had levels between 30 and 50 ppb; and two communities reaching over 5,500 residents had rates higher than 50 ppb.

The report notes that “At least 30,000 of these residents were likely exposed to concentrations of arsenic at levels at least twice the federal standard in 2014 and 2015, according to state data.”

Exposure to arsenic is associated with elevated rates of cancer, and the EPA is currently updating its standards to more closely align with recent science, which has found higher rates of illness associated with arsenic exposure than previously thought.

A 2010 draft of the assessment indicated that the risk of getting cancer from drinking water containing 10 ppb of arsenic is closer to 1 in 136, more than 17 times higher than current assumptions,” the report explained. The EPA had previously advised that drinking water with 10 ppb of arsenic brings the risk of cancer to 1 in 2,000, which is already considered too high. “This level of risk is almost never ‘acceptable’ from a regulatory perspective,” the report says.

The authors cite Michigan’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance’s guidelines to detail other health ailments, aside from cancer, that come with exposure to high levels of arsenic. They include “thickening and discoloration of the skin, problems with blood vessels, high blood pressure, heart disease, nerve effects including numbness and/or pain, and interference with some important cell functions. Short-term exposure to very high levels of arsenic may cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, weakness, and even death.”

Even so, Texas authorities insist the water is safe to drink. “Drinking water standards are set to protect people drinking 2 liters of water per day for 70 years,” according to a written statement from the TCEQ, as reported by the Dallas Morning News. The TCEQ also said, “Out of the 65 water systems cited in the study, all but two are currently under enforcement, or have undergone enforcement, either by the TCEQ, EPA, or Texas attorney general.

In response, Eric Schaeffer, executive director of EIP admonished the TCEQ to “stop straining the English language to avoid stating the obvious: People should avoid drinking or cooking with water that doesn’t meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards,” the Morning News reported.

The problem is that continuing to consume water that violates Safe Drinking Water arsenic limits year after year – sometimes at levels that are three, four, or even eight times the standard – will significantly increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and other health problems,” Schaeffer added.

The report comes amid heightened scrutiny of water supplies across the country following revelations of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. This week alone, news broke that officials in New Jersey knew about lead in public school water, but failed to notify residents. News also emerged this week that perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, known for “cancer, thyroid disease and serious complications during pregnancy,” has tainted water supplies in North Bennington, Vermont.

As far as the 65 Texas communities are concerned, the EIP report urges authorities to establish treatment processes for tainted water and to dilute contaminated water with clean supplies, among other methods. It urges residents who opt to do “in-home” treatments, like iron oxide filtration or reverse osmosis, to have their water tested prior to use, noting that boiling the water is not sufficient to remove arsenic.

As Schaeffer said of the concerning new findings from his organization:

It seems unlikely that state regulators who advise the public about health risk would let their own families keep drinking water that violates the Safe Drinking Water Act limit for arsenic year after year. If that is the case, then Texas health advisories should stop implying that water that keeps failing those standards is somehow safe to drink.”

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