National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

All About Arsenic
New Rule Triggers Controversy, Confusion, and Concession

by Kathy Jesperson
On Tap Managing Editor

Abby and Martha Brewster would be mystified. Why, the answer to all this arsenic controversy would be plain to them. After all, didn’t these two murderous aunts serve their special, arsenic-laced elderberry wine to unsuspecting elderly gentlemen who rented rooms from them “to end their loneliness so they might find ultimate peace?”

Photo Caption: In the 1944 classic Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) finds that his two eccentric aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), are the ones who conspired to murder the man whose body he found in the window seat. Poisoning lonely old men who have no families is one of his aunts' charities.

Photo Credit: Movie still from Arsenic and Old Lace source:

In the sidesplitting farce, Arsenic and Old Lace, the ladies’ homemade brew consisted of a gallon of wine mixed with a teaspoon of arsenic, a half-teaspoon of strychnine, and a pinch of cyanide. After the elderly men succumbed to the lethal mixture, the Brewster women’s crazy nephew Teddy buried the “yellow fever” victims in their basement.

While this play left audiences in stitches, water systems that have to deal with the new arsenic standard don’t find anything funny about changing the maximum contaminant level (MCL) from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb, a standard that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects water systems to meet by January 2006. In this situation, no one is adding arsenic to the water. It’s already in there. And these systems have a lot of questions about how they will pay for the increasing regulations, especially water systems in economically depressed areas.

On the other hand, no one is laughing about arsenic’s health effects either. The EPA set the new arsenic standard for drinking water at 10 ppb because the agency believes that this level will protect consumers against the effects from long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water—taking cost into consideration. However, environmental activist groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), take a much harder view and want to see that level even lower, around 3 ppb.

Affected water systems argue that no one disagrees that arsenic causes adverse health effects. They just want to be certain what the effects are at specific levels, and they argue that the information isn’t available. Then again, a number of environmentalists argue that since no one really knows for sure if there is a safe arsenic level, why risk the public’s health? And those on both sides of this issue question exactly what EPA means by “sound science.”

It depends on what you mean by sound science . . .
“EPA Administrator Christine Whitman said she wanted to make sure the Clinton EPA decision was based on ‘sound science,’ but when the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that the cancer risks of even low levels of arsenic in tap water are many times higher than EPA ever estimated, she didn’t lower the standard,” said Erik D. Olson, an NRDC senior attorney, in a May 2001 press release. “Her review was a charade, and her decision will threaten the health of millions of Americans.”

Water systems argue that EPA’s science was based upon a linear model that may or may not be true. A linear response means that if a person ingests arsenic everyday, even low levels, it accumulates in the body and may cause health effects over long-term consumption. According to a May 2001 report by Pat Dlugasch in the National Driller, “instead of issuing reports describing the differing scientific views of subcommittee members, it seems that the NRC’s (National Research Council) reports may be presenting a compromise consensus on the arsenic issues.

“Some scientists advocate using mathematical models to predict cancer risk from lower levels of arsenic exposure. However, EPA relies on a linear model that assumes any exposure to arsenic will increase cancer risk—the more one is exposed to arsenic, the more the risk increases. “There are other models, called sub-linear models, which assume there is a ‘safe’ level of exposure, which conclude that increases in cancer risk are negligible at low doses,” writes Dlugasch. “Most toxicology processes follow a sub-linear model.”

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) backs this claim and reports in its review of the arsenic rule that “there is strong scientific evidence, based on arsenic’s mode of action, to indicate that the exposure-response function is nonlinear. Indeed, the NRC panel states that the most likely dose-response relationship is sublinear. This implies that the estimated risks at exposure levels associated with the MCL options are overstated using a linear model.” Both sides have questions. Both sides have a case. And both sides have some good reasons for their opinions.

Nobody Knows for Sure
According to an article on the WaterPage, in situations where people have consumed arsenic
over long periods of time, the exact amount of the element’s intake is often unknown. Because of this lack of information, researchers have difficulty predicting whether the element does have a linear effect. Therefore, the precise ramifications of long-term arsenic intake are vague. In addition, other factors play into arsenic’s effects, which raises a number of complex questions, including:
• Is the arsenic organic or inorganic?
• What is the nutritional situation of the affected people?
• What are the effects of other diseases?
• What other environmental factors are affecting the area?

These questions, combined with other possible unknown factors, make research slow and difficult. Current research suggests that arsenic does have a linear effect and builds up in the body. Most of the current research relies upon the linear model, raising doubts among those who must pay to have arsenic removed from their drinking water.

Nevertheless, NRDC says that at present, the linear model is all we have to go on, and until someone proves otherwise, it’s what we have to base decisions upon. They also point out that the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocates a level of 10 ppb. Further, NRDC maintains that the 10 ppb standard still presents cancer risks 10 times higher than the level EPA considers acceptable in regulating other water contaminants. NRDC also says that the 3 ppb level they have suggested is technically and economically feasible. But many small systems impacted aren’t buying that. Ninety-seven percent of the water systems that this rule affects are small systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people. Small systems are also the least likely to possess the resources to comply with this latest regulatory challenge.

And if you ask them if they think the 10 ppb standard is reasonable, you won’t likely get a resounding “yes.” “ (I don’t believe the 10 ppb standard will protect my health) anymore than I believe building a shield of aluminum and placing it over my head will protect me from electronic probes from Mars,” says John L. Jones, chief operating officer for Entranosa Water and Wastewater Association in Tijeras, New Mexico.

“Reducing the standard is politically correct, and it’s a cheap green vote for the legislators in the 40 states that are not affected,” continues Jones. “New Mexico has a high incidence of naturally occurring arsenic. Our communities have been drinking it for centuries, and frankly, folks aren’t just dropping dead in their tracks once they hit the age of 75 unless there are other health issues. In fact, Ojo Caliente is a health resort area because of the naturally occurring minerals in the spring water—and elderly people live there.”

He adds that New Mexico’s incidence of disease associated with high levels of arsenic is very low, and their bladder cancer rate is among the lowest in the nation. According to a Columbia University study, New Mexico, a focal point for high arsenic levels, has the 48th lowest rate of bladder cancer in the U.S. Other conflicting studies also exist. For example, one EPA study found that Utah residents with the highest level of arsenic exposure were the least likely to die from heart disease or stroke.

What is arsenic?
Arsenic has a really bad reputation. Over the centuries, murder mysteries have perpetuated arsenic’s status as a weapon of choice for jilted lovers or fierce foes. Abby and Martha used it to spare lonely gentlemen from a life of solitude. And dramatic Shakespearean characters used it to end their woeful existences. But the truth about arsenic isn’t quite so spine tingling. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is widely distributed in the earth’s crust. Pure arsenic is ordinarily a steel-gray, metal-like material. But arsenic usually doesn’t remain in its pure form.

Photo Credit: Photo from Chemistry Comes Alive! Copyright by Journal of Chemical Education. Used with permission.

Organic, Inorganic: What’s the difference?
Arsenic typically combines with other elements and forms two distinct compounds: organic and inorganic. Since these two compounds are often mistaken as one and the same, it is important to understand the difference between inorganic and organic arsenic because the organic forms are usually less harmful than the inorganic forms.

Most inorganic and organic arsenic compounds are white or colorless powders that do not evaporate. They have no smell, and most have no special taste. Thus, you usually cannot tell if arsenic is present in your food, water, or air. In the environment, for arsenic to become organic, its base molecular structure must bond with carbon or hydrogen. Organic arsenic, even at higher levels, is far less harmful than its inorganic cousin. Further, the arsenic that’s inside of humans, animals, and plants also can combine with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds, notes the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Organic arsenic often builds up in fish, shellfish, and seaweed and has not been associated with human illness in these instances, notes the WaterPage. However, almost no information is available on the effects of organic arsenic compounds in humans. Studies in animals show that most organic arsenic compounds are less toxic than the inorganic forms. In spite of this, high doses of organic arsenic can produce some of the same effects as the toxic inorganic form. Thus, if people are exposed to high doses of an organic arsenic compound, they may develop nerve injury, stomach irritation, or other effects, but this is not known for certain.

For arsenic to be truly dangerous, it must be in its inorganic form. For this state to occur, certain conditions must be present. Consider the following: Under natural conditions, organic arsenic usually occurs at low levels. But if it is exposed to other elements, it can change into its inorganic state rather quickly. This exposure can happen through well drilling, pumping processes, or erosion. Arsenic becomes inorganic if it bonds with oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur. This inorganic state is the most harmful form of arsenic. This is the arsenic most often associated with poison. It is the kind of arsenic that Abby and Martha served to their guests. Most importantly, it’s the kind of arsenic that the regulations are geared toward.

If you swallow inorganic arsenic, most of it quickly enters into the body. In most cases, the human body can tolerate infrequent ingestion of small amounts of inorganic arsenic, notes the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension Service If people are exposed to inorganic arsenic, their bodies can change some of it to a less harmful organic form. Both inorganic and organic forms leave the body via urine. Most of the arsenic will be gone within several days, although small amounts may remain in your body for several months or even longer, notes ATSDR. According to a WaterPage article, a poisonous amount of inorganic arsenic for human beings is anything greater than 65 ppb (or micrograms), whether ingested in one big dose or built up over time from multiple exposures.

Arsenic poisoning may be acute or chronic. Acute poisoning occurs when high levels (more than 65 ppb) of inorganic arsenic are ingested over short time periods. This is more likely to occur at waste sites or industrial process centers where researchers have found high levels of concentrated arsenic. Chronic poisoning occurs when moderate or small amounts of arsenic are ingested over long periods. Chronic poisoning can potentially occur where groundwater containing high levels of inorganic arsenic is consumed daily for extended periods. Bangladesh is the most famous case of chronic arsenic poisoning worldwide. (See side bar below.)

Where in the world is the biggest arsenic problem?

The most famous case of arsenic poisoning is in Bangladesh. Well drilling and population increases have worsened the arsenic problem in the past 25 years. Physicians and other researchers estimate that at least 100,000 severe cases of skin lesions have already occurred. The peak arsenic exposures ranged from undetectable or less than 10 parts per billion (ppb) to 2,000 ppb arsenic.

Photo Caption: The worst arsenic problem in the world is in Bangladesh.
In February 1998, the Guardian (UK) detailed the magnitude of the arsenic contamination in Bangladesh; the local chief of the World Bank has stated that tens of millions of people are at risk, and that 43,000 villages out of 68,000 presently are at risk or could be at risk in the future. Here, a villager shows signs of arsenic poisoning on his hands and feet.

Photo Credit: Bangladesh arsenic poisoning photo from Harvard University 

Problems were first suspected in Bangladesh in 1983 when doctors noticed a growing number of skin lesions in West Bengal, India. Researchers then found more than more than 200,000 cases of arsenic poisoning in more than 1.5 million people. Millions of tube wells, drilled less than 200 meters deep, contribute to arsenic poisoning in this area. Ironically, these tube wells carry arsenic-contaminated water into drinking water sources. Initially, tests that researchers conducted could not detect arsenic until it had already contaminated the wells.

More than 2.5 million of these wells provide water to more than 95 percent of the population. The two reasons that most researchers think releases arsenic into the environment are pyrite oxidation and oxyhydroxide reduction. Pyrite is the most common sulfide mineral found in the earth's crust. It commonly contains arsenic in at least trace amounts, with arsenic concentrations exceeding five percent in some cases. When exposed to oxygen and water, it will oxidize to create acidic solutions and release arsenic into the environment.

Oxyhydroxide reduction, which most researchers currently agree is the most likely way arsenic got into the groundwater, is when arsenic is naturally transported and adsorbed onto fine-grained iron or manganese oxyhydroxides, which slowly break down. Some water professionals have suggested using field-testing kits to address the arsenic problem. These are readily available on a number of Internet sites, but have yet to be used widely in Bangladesh. However, the lack of funds, education, and technology leave a wide gap in the middle of the road that leads to solving this arsenic problem. For more information about the arsenic-poisoning problem in Bangladesh, visit the WaterPage on their Web site at

What are arsenic’s health effects?
Inorganic arsenic has been recognized as a human poison since ancient times, and large oral doses above 60,000 ppb in food or water may result in immediate death, according to ATSDR. If someone swallows lower amounts of inorganic arsenic (ranging from about 300 to 30,000 ppb in food and water), he or she may experience stomach and intestinal irritation, with symptoms, such as pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Other effects from swallowing inorganic arsenic include:
• decreased red and white blood-cell production,
• abnormal heart rhythm,
• blood vessel damage, and
• impaired nerve function causing a “pins and needles” sensation in hands and feet.

Although there is no evidence that arsenic can injure pregnant women or their fetuses, studies in animals show that doses of arsenic that are large enough to cause illness in pregnant females may cause low birth weight, fetal malformations, or even fetal death. Perhaps the single most characteristic effect of long-term oral exposure to inorganic arsenic is a pattern of skin changes. This includes a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts on the palms, soles, and torso. While these skin changes are not considered a health concern in their own right, a small number of the corns may ultimately develop into skin cancer.

EPA notes that inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen and long-term ingestion may increase the risk of skin cancer and tumors of the bladder, liver, kidney, and lungs. Direct skin contact with high arsenic concentrations may cause redness and swelling. Research has shown arsenic’s effects on human health to be variable depending upon sex, ethnicity, concentration, and length of exposure. Although toxicologists aren’t sure how inorganic arsenic attacks the body’s cells, a new study out of Dartmouth Medical School indicates the substance disrupts the activity of hormones called glucocorticoids, which help to regulate blood sugar and suppress tumors, according to the Scientific American article.

Dartmouth’s researchers say that inorganic arsenic binds to the glucocorticoid receptors in cells and changes their structure.The study suggests that arsenic, rather than causing cancer by itself, promotes the growth of tumors that other carcinogens have already triggered. And according to this study, arsenic-induced effects appeared at concentrations as low as 2 ppb. Despite all the adverse health effects associated with inorganic arsenic exposure, some evidence exists that the small amounts of arsenic in the normal diet (10–50 ppb) may be beneficial to your health. But like other micronutrients, such as iron or chromium, a little is beneficial, too much can be hazardous to your health.

For example, animals fed a diet with unusually low concentrations of arsenic did not gain weight normally. They also became pregnant less frequently than animals fed a diet containing a normal amount of arsenic. Further, the offspring of these animals tended to be smaller than normal, and some died at an early age. However, no cases of arsenic deficiency in humans have ever been reported.

How much arsenic is out there?
Because arsenic is a natural part of the environment, low levels of arsenic are present in soil, water, food, and air. Soil usually contains the most, with average levels of approximately 5,000 ppb in soil. Levels in food are usually about 20–140 ppb, according to the ATSDR.

Levels in air are usually about 0.02–0.10 micrograms per cubic meter. Thus, you normally take in small amounts of arsenic in the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat. Of these, food is usually the largest source. You are also likely to swallow small amounts of dust or dirt each day, so this is another way you can be exposed to arsenic. The total amount you take in from all these sources is probably about 50 micrograms each day. However, much of the arsenic that we consume everyday is in its organic form and is much less toxic than the inorganic form, according to ATSDR.
Why are water systems upset?

For the most part, the water systems impacted by the arsenic rule are small, rural systems—meaning they have small customer bases, few community assets, and don’t take in a lot of money. “It would be easy to simply say that money or economics (are the biggest obstacles for small systems that must comply with the arsenic rule) but I feel it is deeper than that,” says Don Munkers, CEO of Idaho Rural Water Association (IRWA). “It is not just arsenic,” Munkers explains. “It is the cumulative effect of all the new regulations coming into existence.

“I truly believe that in some circumstances, decisions will need to be made by the systems and their patrons on what programs will be stopped, not planned, or postponed so as to have adequate funding to treat for arsenic,” he continues. Munkers adds that the public health benefit from 10–11 ppb is not appreciable, citing that Americans face more critical issues in their health, such as smoking and drug and alcohol abuse. “The key is the cost-to-benefit ratio of the standard and the cost-to-benefit ratio of other issues,” he says. A cost-to-benefit ratio means that when EPA develops a new standard, the agency takes into account how much a new regulation will cost in relation to its actual benefit.

To put it as simply as possible, if there is a one in 10,000 risk of developing bladder cancer from
consuming water that contains arsenic levels of 10 ppb, and a community has 20,000 residents, then two people will develop bladder cancer. If this community needs $15 million to install treatment to remove this contaminant, the cost of treatment outweighs the benefit. While there are numerous other factors to consider when establishing a cost-to-benefit ratio, this example presents the basic idea.

Impoverished State Fears Worst
New Mexico is worried about treatment cost as well, but the state also fears that many small system operators won’t be able to get the training they need to continue in their jobs. “In New Mexico, there are arguably more than 140 systems that will be impacted and most of them service less then 3,300 folks,” explains Jones. “Most of those systems have volunteer operators—community members who have stepped up, gotten trained, and worked in their off-hours to keep the system safe and operating.” He added that if training becomes too expensive, volunteer operators will likely resign. “Many of these small rural systems are in economically disadvantaged areas and (the system’s customers) struggle to pay their water bills now,” says Jones. “Even if it only increases $15 a month, much less than the projected $90 a month that reputable entities have made, it’s still too much.”

Matthew Holmes, executive director for New Mexico Rural Water Association supports Jones’ assertion: “New Mexico consistently rates as one of the poorest states in the nation—19 percent of New Mexicans lived in poverty in 1998 and 27 percent of children,” says Holmes. In fact, Holmes says that many of New Mexico’s rural counties are worse off than those statistics indicate—McKinley County had a 37 percent poverty rate with nearly half of all children living in impoverished conditions. According to Holmes, these are the same communities that will be forced to comply with the arsenic regulation— installing expensive technology, hiring a qualified water operator and maintaining a complex treatment system. (See treatment technology side bar below.)

Technologies To Get Arsenic Out of Water
Environmental arsenic is found in two forms: arsenic V (arsenate), and arsenic III (arsenite). Arsenic V is the common oxidized state found in surface water and some groundwater sources. Arsenic III is not oxidized and is found in some groundwater sources. Arsenic III needs to be converted to arsenic V using a pre-oxidation method prior to treatment. Pre-oxidation may be required prior to any of these treatment processes if arsenic III is present.

Pre-oxidation technology includes chlorination, potassium permanganate, and ozone, although aeration over a significant time period and ultra-violet light (UV) are also possible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 2,300 community and 1,100 non-transient non-community systems will need to install treatment. Treatment options that EPA identified include ion exchange, reverse osmosis, activated alumina, nano-filtration, electrodialysis reversal, coagulation/filtration, lime softening, greensand filtration and other iron/manganese removal processes, and emerging technologies that the water industry has not yet identified.

Ion exchange is a low-cost alternative but has problems with the presence of sulfate. Sulfate will tie up the exchange media before arsenic removal and release any arsenic that has been removed by the media. Upper boundaries of sulfate in the water are in the range of 50–120 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Also, the waste brine is high enough in arsenic to be considered hazardous waste unless discharged into a sanitary sewer.

Activated alumina is only efficient at low pH (under 6), and may require pH adjustment with hydrochloric acid, followed by corrosion control before going into the distribution system. Regeneration wastes can go to a sanitary sewer but are both high and low pH waste streams. The alumina media can be disposed of in a normal landfill without regeneration and is the more likely disposal alternative. Reverse osmosis (RO) carries a higher cost but can be very effective in removing more than one contaminant if other regulations are impacting the system. Waste arsenic levels may not be at the hazardous level, but they may also go to sanitary sewers. Because the treatment removes all inorganics, treatment may need to be partial stream or require corrosion control following arsenic removal. Rejected water may total 25 percent or more of the total flow through the treatment process.

Coagulation/filtration and lime softening are not expected to be installed for arsenic removal but may be used for this purpose if they are part of an existing treatment scheme. Coagulation/filtration will require pH at levels less than 7. Lime softening will require pH levels above 10.5. Corrosion control will be needed for either technology. Electrodialysis reversal is similar to, but more costly than, RO. It has the advantage of being able to be used in very poor quality water.

Oxidation filters including greensand and other similar iron/manganese removal technologies are very cost-effective on waters with at least 300 mg/l of iron. Removal takes out one part of arsenic for every 20 parts of iron. Extended oxidation times may be required to complete the process prior to filtration. Emerging technologies include coagulation-assisted micro-filtration, granular ferric hydroxide filters, and other adsorptive treatment methods. Further study is being done to determine their effectiveness.

Point-of-use, point-of-entry (POU/POE) treatment devices are allowed, but POU is preferred since it minimizes the waste disposal stream. POU technologies include reverse osmosis and activated alumina. POE is only activated alumina. The public water system or a contractor must own, control, and maintain these devices. The devices must have mechanical warnings (lights) that warn the customer of failure, as well as automatic shut-off valves on activated alumina. These devices have high monitoring and administrative costs, but this is easily balanced by only having to treat about 1 percent of the total flow.

Most times, POU devices are installed under the kitchen sink. They are considered to be cost-effective. The devices must each be tested at the normal frequency (once per year for surface water, once every three years for groundwater) to determine if they comply with current standards, although the state may allow alternative testing requirements based on equipment, system history, level of contaminant, safety devices, or other considerations. Bottled water is not allowed for compliance purposes but may be used for emergency water supplies.

Source: National Rural Water Association and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

“Water bills for these small systems will increase, and customers will have to make up the additional money from an already stretched budget,” says Holmes, noting that disadvantaged households may be forced to choose among such essentials as water, food, and health care. National Rural Water Association (NRWA) expresses concerns for small systems nationwide, not only those systems in geographic hot spots, such as the Southwest, but those small systems that are in areas where arsenic levels are much higher than what geologists predicted.

EPA cautions that most areas of the U.S. record low levels of arsenic in their drinking water supplies. But they also say that compared with the rest of the U.S., western states have far more systems with arsenic levels greater than 10 ppb with some places in these areas reporting levels as high as 100 ppb. Parts of the Midwest and New England have some systems with arsenic levels greater than 10 ppb, but more systems with arsenic levels that range from 2–10 ppb.

“While it is good to err on the side of public health, small systems must be able to implement the standard with costs being reasonably affordable,” says Jerry Biberstine, senior environmental engineer for the NRWA. “Treatment expenses are expected to be quite high—in some cases adding up to $10 to $20 per tap. “Many states will not provide public loan funds to privately owned water systems,” he continues, adding that these systems will be forced to go to local lending institutions to search for funding that they may not find because of issues such as existing high-water rates, large outstanding debt, or low-income customers.

Just the same, EPA expects everyone to comply with the arsenic rule—sooner or later.
To provide some relief, EPA proposed a plan that will allow smaller water systems that serve fewer than 3,300 people to delay meeting new federal arsenic standards until 2015. Larger systems can defer complying for eight years. “If arsenic is such a hazard to the health, then EPA would be criminally negligent, in my mind, to extend implementation,” Jones says.

“I am one of those who believes the reduction is bad public policy,” he continues. “And that it is (a decision that’s) being made without sufficient evidence of a problem existing. Spending $6 billion on infrastructure that isn’t really required when the nation is faced by a couple of hundred billion dollars worth of critical infrastructure needs and by the emergent security needs of systems reflects a misplaced priority so in that respect, reducing the MCL is criminal in itself.”

NRDC asserts that delaying the regulation is criminal as well, but for its own reasons. Again, they rely on studies that suggest arsenic’s health effects are greater than originally predicted. And they also point to the WHO standard. State health departments are prepared to enforce that standard when it’s time, but they also admit to confusion. “The proposal to extend the time systems (have to comply) is in conflict with EPA’s message about this whole issue, and ties in with (the lack of) consensus on (what a safe limit for arsenic would be) and many think it should be lower,” says Meliss Maxfield, program manager at Washington State Department of Health.

“The arsenic guidance document lays out this proposal,” she continues. “So my guess is that if states want to allow systems to wait until 2015 to comply, it will be the responsibility of the state to show how they (the state) can assure that public health is protected at these higher levels. “In this same vein,” Maxfield says, “some EPA staff think that the standard should have gone lower than 10 ppb. If that is the case, then how can they propose to extend the time line to 2015? It’s a confusing message they are sending.”

According to EPA, the agency based its decision to delay the standard on complaints from thousands of smaller water systems that requested help to comply with the arsenic rule. Many of these systems are in rural states and many have arsenic levels far exceeding the standards. In addition, the agency was under Congressional pressure to allow water systems to ease into compliance while they secured technical expertise and money to make changes.

EPA also tried to listen to environmental groups and concerned citizens and set the MCL at a level it thought would provide the greatest public health protection. And in trying to please everybody, the agency found itself stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Are there any solutions?
Water systems that need funds to comply with the arsenic rule may apply for financial assistance through EPA’s drinking water state revolving fund (DWSRF). Most capital projects—including adding new technologies and upgrading existing technologies—needed to comply with the new arsenic standards are eligible for funding under the DWSRF.

Consolidating and restructuring water systems can be a cost-effective option for small systems that the arsenic rule affects. The DWSRF can fund consolidation, including situations where a supply has become contaminated or a system is unable to comply with regulations for technical, financial, or managerial reasons. In addition, point-of-use (POU) devices, such as faucet filters, will be an attractive option to small systems because of cost. The DWSRF can fund these devices as long as the water system owns and maintains the units.

States can use DWSRF set-aside funds to assist systems directly, as well as to enhance their own program management activities. A state may use set-asides to make improvements to the entire drinking water program that faces increased costs in implementing the new arsenic rule. In addition, states can use these funds to provide training to small systems about how to meet the arsenic rule’s requirements. States may use the funds to provide technical assistance to those systems that need to identify the most appropriate technology. States also can provide assistance to small systems to cover the costs of project planning and design for infrastructure improvements.

Since states manage the DWSRF program, project and set-aside funding varies according to the priorities, policies, and laws within each state. Given that each state administers its own program differently, the first step in seeking assistance is to contact the state DWSRF representative. A list can be found on the EPA DWSRF Web site. (See resource list at end of this article.)

In addition, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, promises to supply additional funding. RUS plans to work with EPA to determine which water system projects need immediate funding. RUS grants and loans will be available for systems that meet RUS requirements.

Where do we go from here?
Confusion, controversy, and concession are the three best words to describe the passage of one of the most unpopular drinking water standards in U.S. history. Almost all the players in this saga still have questions and still want answers. And patience has become a virtue.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this are water system customers. They may not understand all the chemistry of water. They probably don’t know how much it costs to operate and manage a water system. But system customers do know how much treated water costs, and they don’t want to see their water bills increase. One fact remains, however; Abby and Martha would know what to do. They’d serve up their special, homemade brew. “Why, if we could help everybody find the same peace as our gentlemen callers, we would,” they might say.

Order Arsenic Treatment and Info Products from NDWC
• Treatment of Arsenic Residuals from Drinking Water Removal Processes, item #DWBKOM18;
• Laboratory Study on the Oxidation of Arsenic III to Arsenic IV, item #DWBKRE18;
• Arsenic Removal from Drinking Water by Ion Exchange and Activated Alumina Plants, item #DWBKOM12;
• Oxidation of Arsenic (III) by Aeration and Storage, item #DWBLOM13;
• Using DWSRF Funds to Comply with the New Arsenic Rule, item #DWFSFN32;
• Arsenic Removal from Drinking Water by Coagulation/ Filtration and Lime Softening Plants, item #DWBKOM17;
• Regulations on the Disposal of Arsenic Residuals from Drinking Water Treatment Plants, item #DWBLRG58;
• Arsenic Removal from Drinking Water by Iron Removal Plants, item #DWBKOM14;

To order, call the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse at (304) 293-4191. You also may order online at

For More Information
For table graphics or to order this issue of On Tap magazine call: (304) 293-4191.
You may also e-mail your orders to

For general information about arsenic in drinking water, contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791, or see arsenic information on EPA’s Safewater Web site at html.

For more information about EPA DWSRF loans, visit their Web site at You also may download the fact sheet “Using DWSRF Funds to Comply with the New Arsenic Rule” from this EPA Web site.

For more information about RUS loans and grants, visit their Web site at The site also contains facts sheets about loans and grants for water and wastewater.


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2001. “ToxFAQs for Arsenic.” ATSDR/ CDC: Atlanta, GA.

Alpert, Mark. 2001. “A Touch of Poison.” Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc.: New York.

American Water Works Association (AWWA). 2001. “Comments by the American Water Works Association on the Notice of Data Availability for the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for Arsenic.” AWWA: Denver, CO.

Biberstine, Jerry. 2002. Personal interview. National Rural Water Association: Duncan, OK.

Conner, John T. P.E. 2001. “Arsenic in Drinking Water Part 2: Human Exposure and Health Effects.” Water Infocenter. Scranton Gillette Communications, Inc: Des Plaines, IL.

Jones, John L. 2002. Personal interview. Tijeras, Entranosa Water and Wastewater Association: New Mexico.

Holmes, Matthew. 2002. Personal interview. New Mexico Rural Water Association: Albuquerque, NM.

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). 2001. “ARC Known Carcinogens: Arsenic and Certain Arsenic Compounds.” IARC: France.

Masibay, Kimberly. 2000. “Drinking without Harm.” Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc.: New York.

Maxfield, Meliss. 2002. Personal interview. Washington State Department of Health: Olympia, Washington.

Munkers, Don. 2002. Personal interview. Idaho Rural Water Association: Boise, ID.

Murray, Iain. 2001. “Needless Worry About Arsenic in Our Water.” The Record. Statistical Assessment Service: Washington, D.C.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). 2001. “Arsenic Contamination of Drinking Water.” MDEQ: Lansing, MI.

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 2001. “Arsenic in Drinking Water.” NRDC: New York.

Owen, Jerry. 2002. “Arsenic in Drinking Water.” The WaterPage. Water Policy International: Surrey, UK.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Assisting Small Community Water Systems in Complying with the Public Health Standard for Arsenic in Drinking Water.” USDA: Washington, D.C.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2002. “Using DWSRF Funds to Comply with the New Arsenic Rule.”

EPA: Washington, D.C.
Ibid. 2001. “Occurrence of Arsenic in Ground Water.” EPA: Washington, D.C.

Ibid. 2001. “Technical Fact Sheet: Final Rule for Arsenic in Drinking Water.” EPA: Washington, D.C.

Ibid. 2001. “Drinking Water Standard for Arsenic.” EPA: Washington,

Ibid. 2002. “Report to Congress: Small Systems Arsenic Implementation Issues.” EPA: Washington, D.C.

Ibid. 2001. “Arsenic in Drinking Water: Treatment Technologies: Removal.” EPA: Washington, D.C.

World Health Organisation (WHO). “Arsenic in Drinking Water: Fact Sheet No. 210.” World Health Organisation: Geneva, Switzerland.