TOPICS > Health

Unsafe Water

October 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Amy Turner and a group of clean water advocates went door to door all summer telling people about the dangers of arsenic in drinking water.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: They also wanted to educate residents in Oakland County, Michigan, about a new standard the federal government wants to set for what is safe.

AMY TURNER: And so it’s the EPA that gets to make this decision. And they need public comment about how many parts per billion of arsenic is allowed to be in drinking water. We obviously think as low as possible. Is that something you agree with?

WOMAN: Yes. I didn’t realize we had arsenic in our water.

AMY TURNER: Sure enough. Especially for people on well water.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The current federal government standard for arsenic in drinking water is 50 parts per billion; that’s about the equivalent of 50 drops in a swimming pool of water. But last year the prestigious National Academy of Sciences said that was too much and warned that 34 million Americans are drinking tap water with unacceptable arsenic levels. Now the Environmental Protection Agency wants to lower the legally accepted levels drastically to five parts per billion. Dr. Michael Harbut is an expert on environmentally caused illnesses. He has a number of patients in his Southfield, Michigan practice who suffer from disorders caused by arsenic. He’s also just completed a study he says clearly shows the dangers of arsenic in drinking water.

DR. MICHAEL HARBUT, Physician: Arsenic causes cancer, arsenic causes heart disease, arsenic causes stroke, arsenic causes diabetes, arsenic causes neurologic abnormalities and an entire host of diseases which are known to be among of the most common causes of chronic disease and death in the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Because arsenic testing is only required in some localities, nobody knows for sure how much there is. But Michigan is one of a handful of states where arsenic has been found to naturally occur in the ground. It gets into drinking water when it seeps into the water supply, particularly in communities that rely on well water. Almost 40% of Michigan’s tap water comes from wells. Thousands of people like Rene Crouch, who live in rural areas, and have no other source. For about eight years while Crouch and her family drank unfiltered well water, they suffered from a series of mysterious chronic illnesses. Tests later confirmed high levels of arsenic in their drinking water. Melissa Crouch is Rene’s 20-year-old daughter.

MELISSA CROUCH: I remember we were all sick all the time and you try to find a reason for why you’re sick. I did this, I ate that or, you know, it was everybody.

RENE CROUCH: The kids, Melissa and Steven always said their stomach hurt. It just always hurt it was not anything we could associate with anything. And this gradually kept getting worse and worse and worse over time. We figure it took us about eight years before we finally realized what was happening.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the Crouch’s family doctor said they had been suffering from arsenic poisoning. And when they stopped drinking well water, the illnesses disappeared. Since then, Crouch and State Representative Ruth Johnson have been trying to get Oakland County officials to tell all residents how much arsenic is in their water.

RUTH JOHNSON, Michigan State Representative: As it is now, this is a state record. It came in at 435. And then we have someone in Highland at 290…300 parts actually…299.8…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Johnson says only 4,000 wells out of nearly 200,000 have been tested in her district.

RUTH JOHNSON: So the question is when do you let people have the information? When do you give to it them to let them make their own decision? And that’s what’s been withheld in my own opinion. If you want to drink arsenic in your water, that’s fine with me, but you should know about it; you should know what the risks and then make an informed decision, rather than having someone make the decision for you. And that’s what we’ve had here and that’s why we’ve had so many people get sick without knowing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But officials like Oakland County Health and Human Services Director Tom Gordon says it’s not the county government’s job to disclose arsenic levels.

TOM GORDON, Oakland County Health and Human Services: For private wells, individual on site wells, it does not matter whether it’s 50 parts per billion or three parts per billion. It’s still up to the individual homeowner to fix their well.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Gordon says the county is informing residents of the risks of arsenic in well water with a map that’s available on the Internet, in schools and in libraries. But it shows only areas where the water contains more than 50 parts per billion. Representative Johnson says her constituents are getting sick at much lower levels. Gordon says he’s comfortable with the current standard unless and until the EPA changes it.

TOM GORDON: Would I have problems drinking at that level? No. Because the evidence I’ve seen, the documentation I’ve seen from people who know far more about arsenic in drinking water than I do indicates it would take a prolonged period of time for most people to see any effects if they see any effects.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the EPA’s top water quality official defends the agency’s proposed standard of five parts per billion.

CHARLES FOX, EPA: Virtually all of the science that I’m aware of suggests that arsenic is a very significant threat to public health and that we need to significantly reduce the standard. Five parts per billion will be protective of the American public. This is a very significant public health issue and I think we need to be safe in protecting public health.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not everyone thinks the standard should be set so low at five parts per billion. Studies done in countries like Bangladesh have been conducted on water with extremely high arsenic levels. None have been done on large American populations. And the state of Michigan’s top water quality official thinks there is insufficient data justify a standard as low as five.

FLINT WATT, Michigan State Water Official: I don’t think the data shows conclusively that three, five, ten or twenty parts per billion causes cancer. What we’re doing is we’re taking data from studies at much higher levels than that that we do know shows cancer and we’re extrapolating that data trying to find an area where it’s low enough where it won’t cause. But I don’t think anybody has got any real certainty at what that level is.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whatever new standard is set, the EPA has made it clear it will be way below the current 50 parts per billion. That’s going to have major economic impact, especially on small towns that depend on well water.

SPOKESMAN: This is one of our two wells that the city has.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Brown City, Michigan is going to have to spend twice its annual one million budget to put in a new water system whatever the new EPA standard is. Clint Holmes is city manager.

CLINT HOLMES: In order to pay for this, we’ll have to go ahead and get a municipal bond or a revenue bond and pay for it over a period of 30 years, which is going to result in a significant tax increase for local residents.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It isn’t just small towns that will be affected. The cities of Scottsdale, Phoenix, and Albuquerque may have to spend millions to make their water systems comply with any new EPA standard. And Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

TOM CURTIS: At the low end of the range of options, the cost could be about $14 billion nationwide or about $1.5 billion every year. The question is: are people going to get health protection that’s commensurate with that cost? We want the standard to be set at a level that protects public health. It clearly needs to be made stronger than it is now, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about how much benefit people will get from the higher bills they’re going to pay.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Curtis says in some communities customers will see their water bills double regardless where the new standard is set.

JIM LEHRER: The EPA had been expected to issue a new regulation by January, but congressional opponents seeking to block the tougher standard are now pushing for a delay.