You may not know it, but you probably consume arsenic regularly in the food you eat and the water you drink. In 2008, scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that arsenic was 17 times more potent a carcinogen that previously thought. But a closed-door maneuver in Congress has blocked the EPA from issuing its findings.
The Center for Public Integrity reporter David Heath takes us to Maine, where researchers have found that children drinking water containing arsenic – even water that met federal standards – scored significantly lower on IQ tests. The research is just one of hundreds of studies that call into question whether the current drinking-water standard for arsenic is adequate.
Heath unravels the backroom deals that have stalled the EPA’s latest assessment of arsenic. He examines how one paragraph of a congressional committee report attached to a bill instructed the agency not to take any actions based on its scientific findings. Heath investigates how one lawmaker received campaign contributions from a lobbyist for two pesticide companies that sell weed killer that was set to be banned on the condition that the EPA complete its scientific review of arsenic. Because of political interference, that ban never happened, and the weed killers are still on the market.
Arsenic makes up part of Earth's crust and is commonly found in groundwater. In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the drinking water standard from 50 parts per billion of arsenic to 10 parts per billion. The agency initially had proposed a limit of 5 parts per billion but faced criticism that it would be too costly for water companies to hit that target.
Arsenic is known to cause a variety of cancers and has been linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has found an association between arsenic levels below 10 parts per billion and IQ deficits in children.
This map is based on arsenic readings from 45,000 wells collected by the U.S. Geological Survey throughout the country, going back four decades. In addition, the states of Texas and Minnesota provided data gathered on arsenic in private wells. In several other states, few readings were available.