When Clinton left office, the pardons he granted to Marc Rich and others for cash rightfully got heavy media coverage. Less attention was paid to the rash of executive orders, proclamations and regulations he issued. These included measures to preserve wilderness areas by banning road construction and drilling for gas and oil, safeguarding the health of workers with new OSHA regulations, and reducing the risk to public health by decreeing a drastic reduction in the level of arsenic permitted in drinking water. This has attracted a lot of attention recently because President Bush reversed it, angering extreme environmentalists.
The media coverage of this controversy has largely overlooked an important question. If the level of arsenic in water is too high, why did Clinton wait until the end of his term to do anything about it? Did he believe that the actions he took were really necessary, or was he hoping to impale his successor on the horns of a dilemma. If Bush allowed his orders to stand, he would be imposing punishing burdens on the economy and alienate a lot of his supporters. If he reversed them, he would alienate the fuzzy-minded environmentalists.
Ralph Nader has said: “Clinton issued these standards just before he left office in all these areas…And he did it for two reasons: his historic legacy, and to lay a trap for George W. Bush. And he fell right into it.” The major media have fallen into the same trap, failing to expose Clinton’s cynical ploy and failing to correct the impression that the level of arsenic permitted in our water is too high.
One exception to this is the Washington Times. It recently published a column by Dr. Robert Cihak, president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, and Dr. Michael Glueck giving the scientific facts that explain why Americans have not suffered any ill effects from drinking water containing infinitesimal amounts of arsenic since the limit now in effect was adopted 59 years ago. That standard, .05 parts of arsenic per million, had a built-in four-fold safety margin. That means that the level of arsenic in the water would have to be four times the legal limit before it would pose any threat to health.
Cihak and Glueck reminded the readers of the Washington Times of the old rule that the dose makes the poison. Chemicals that we ingest in our food, such as salt, can be injurious if taken in large quantities, but we don’t call salt a poison. Poisons are chemicals that can cause death or harm in very small quantities. Bush’s critics have been able to excite a lot of people about arsenic because we all know it’s a poison. Cihak and Glueck say that almost all poisons, including arsenic, are harmless if diluted enough.
There are many chemicals in drinking water, including chlorine, which is added to make it safe, but no one would drink it straight.
Absent any scientific evidence that .05 parts of arsenic per million in water is injurious, it would be folly to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to cut the permitted level to one fifth of that amount, as Clinton proposed. That should be the media’s message.