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March 21, 2001 (Washington) -- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to withdraw a rule issued during the last days of the Clinton administration that would reduce most of the arsenic in America's drinking water. However, environmentalists say they plan to fight the move in court if necessary.

"I think what it means is tens of millions of people are going to be at higher cancer risk than they would have been if EPA had followed through, and I think it will mean that undoubtedly hundreds or more people will die of cancer as a result of this decision," Erik Olson, senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), tells WebMD. Arsenic is believed to cause cancer and other diseases, but the amount considered dangerous is in dispute.

The pending proposal would have dropped allowable amounts of the toxin in water by 80% from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. In announcing the policy shift, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said although she is "committed to safe and affordable drinking water," any arsenic rule should be supported by good science, and currently she says there is "no consensus."

"That's absurd. ... Arsenic is only one of a handful of chemicals where there is unanimity that it is known to cause cancer in humans," says Olson.

But Whitman says the she's worried there may a financial downside for cities if the rule is enforced.

"When the federal government imposes costs on communities -- especially small communities -- we should be sure the facts support imposing the federal standard," said Whitman in a prepared statement. Once that task is accomplished, Whitman promised to move with new regulation. Whitman also expressed concern that some cities and states would have a hard time understanding the proposed arsenic standard.

The EPA says the highest concentrations of arsenic occur in Western and Southwestern states. Overall, an estimated 34 million Americans are exposed to some level of arsenic in their drinking water. According to a study done by the NRDC, some of the biggest cities with significant arsenic in their water supplies include Los Angeles; Phoenix; and El Paso, Texas. However, all of those levels ranked below the proposed 10 parts per billion threshold.

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