As the government clamors to define an acceptable arsenic standard, there are some in the United States who say that arsenic really isn't that big of a deal. Residents of Fallon, Nev., population 8,300, are some such people, reports theL.A. Times.
A study of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 25 states by the Natural Resources Defense Council recently found that Fallon's water system delivered more arsenic to its customers than any other large system, defined as one serving at least 3,300 people. Water out of the taps in Fallon contains about 90 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic - this is nearly double the current government standard of 50 ppb.
Outside the city where people rely on private wells, arsenic levels frequently reach 700 ppb and are sometimes higher than 2,000 ppb. Many who drink from these wells do not have them tested because testing for all possible contaminants, as municipal water providers are required to do, costs about $3,000. Also, state health officer Dr. Mary Guinan says, "If they knew [what's in their water], they'd have to disclose it when they sell their home, and they don't want to reduce their property values."
Despite the health risks associated with arsenic, many in Fallon don't want to pay for a $10-million treatment plant to remove the toxin. State Assemblywoman Marcia DeBraga, whose district includes Fallon, says she wishes the city would address the arsenic problem. "I don't know if they're in denial, or firmly believe that since Grandpa Jones drank it all his life, it's not a serious problem," she says. "But they need to bite the bullet."
Scientific studies notwithstanding, one of Fallon's doctors, Dr. Gary Ridenour, says that the water is safe, even with its high arsenic content. "I've been here for 20 years, seeing 30 patients a day, and I don't see a problem," the internist says. "I tell people that we eat cactus and rattlesnakes and spit poison darts."
Although residents may not think that arsenic is a big deal, the federal government does. Even before President Clinton tried to lower the standard to 10 ppb during his last week in office, Fallon was ordered by EPA officials to cut its arsenic levels in half by September 2003 or face fines of $27,500 a day. To avoid the fines, the city grudgingly has begun designing a treatment, although it is not sure how it is going to pay for it. It is frustrated that it doesn't know which arsenic levels it ultimately will have to meet - 50 ppb or 10 ppb.