Lower arsenic levels aren't quite the answer the mainstream media think it is.

President George W. Bush has taken a lot of heat over his decision to reverse the arsenic rule issued under the Clinton administration. Environmentalists accused him of giving in to the polluters. Democrats cried foul, saying the change would harm the public.

I just watched the entire media circus, wondering when somebody would start telling the truth. Nobody ever did, and finally, the media hype died down.

Of course, the quality of drinking water is near and dear to the plumbing industry's heart. We have always prided ourselves on being the protectors of the potable water supply. So what is the truth about arsenic?

First thing you should realize is that the arsenic rule was not a new law designed to go after polluters. When environmentalists cried that this change would allow mining operations to pollute the water, they were either lying, or just plain stupid. There are already laws on the books that regulate the discharge of any process waste. Hence, mining operations already must comply with discharge quality requirements. They cannot pollute the potable water with arsenic.

What the arsenic rules really applied to are well systems used to supply potable water. Many of these wells, with high arsenic levels, are located in the Western part of the United States.

How It Gets There

Arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral. There can be deposit of arsenic in the aquifer. The mineral normally does not dissolve in water. It is only by a natural process of oxyhydroxide reduction that arsenic becomes soluble in water. Simply stated, this is a process of rusting when the water table drops. As the water table rises during the raining season (or snow melt), the rust particles dissolve in the ground water. This is when the arsenic becomes a toxic component of drinking water.

In addition to naturally occurring arsenic, it is also a waste product from semiconductor facilities, mining operations and petroleum refineries. Arsenic is found in wood preservatives and herbicides. Hence, there are other avenues for arsenic to enter the potable water system.

How deadly is arsenic? You may have seen a production of the play, "Arsenic and Old Lace." Two elderly women poison their lonely gentlemen as an act of kindness. Thanks to the play, most people believe that if you drink water that contains arsenic you will keel over and die. Well, arsenic is toxic, but not like the play. It can cause kidney disease, stomach cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer and liver cancer. The question is, "How much arsenic does it take to cause these different diseases and cancers?"

The current level of arsenic permitted in drinking water is 50 part per billion (ppb). This level was originally established in 1942. The Clinton administration proposed dropping that level to 10 ppb by the year 2006. All Bush did was maintain the current level. He did not increase the level. Hence, if people are going to be dropping dead, they should have been, and would still be, dropping dead since the rule was not effective until 2006.

All of the debate is over the testing of white lab rats, and what level it takes to be a problem. The studies try to determine the acceptable levels based on animal testing. Scientists continue to debate this issue. This it what Bush is being beat up over. I don't want to get into that debate.

Removing Arsenic

It is estimated that to lower the arsenic level in the public water supply in the United States, it would cost $200 million a year, using current technology.

I happened to be reading about the development of a new technology at my alma mater, Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. They have been developing a low cost method of removing arsenic to be used in Bangladesh. A chemical is added to the water and the water is passed through a sand filter. This removes almost all of the arsenic.

Arsenic is certainly a huge problem in Bangladesh. U.S. Water News reports that in Bangladesh, some wells have water with arsenic levels of 1,000 ppb. That's 20 times the acceptable level in the United States. The Dakha Department of Dermatology and Venereology reports that there are as many as 200,000 deaths a year in Bangladesh from arsenic poisoning.

While most of the water in Bangladesh is well water, the water is normally pumped into containers from hand-pumped wells. Hence, any removal system has to be simple and low cost.

Stevens is creating a company called MetalFilter to develop this low cost technology for commercial use in the United States. The new technology could be used on both commercial water treatment plants and individual well systems.

Realize that all of the discussion in Washington is with regard to public water supplies. These rules are not directly applied to private well systems. However, some states adopt the rules and make them applicable to private wells. Many states and local water purveyors keep track of this information. They can tell you the arsenic levels in the ground water supply.

If you work in an area having high concentrations of arsenic in well water, you may want to recommend to your customers to have their water sampled. If the arsenic levels are too high, you may want to suggest a water treatment, filtration or reverse osmosis system for the drinking water supply. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open for the low cost system being developed by Stevens.

And if you are wondering what the level should be for arsenic in drinking water, I haven't a clue. I'll leave that to the scientists and politicians to figure out.