Monday, January 17, 2005

Red States

A Washington Post writer documents his travels through several "red states." There's some purple prose scattered throughout, but on the whole the article is interesting. I was intrigued by this conversation with a Nebraska resident:
"I'm the village water officer," Stuhr explained. "For more than 100 years, we've lived with arsenic in our water. It is a naturally occurring element. It isn't contamination -- it's natural."

During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the amount of arsenic allowed in water, from 50 parts-per-billion to 10. "Now all over Nebraska, villages are having to build new water treatment plants to remove a naturally occurring element," Stuhr said, which costs "millions of dollars."

Does Washington pay? I asked.

"They'll loan us the money," Stuhr answered. "And whose money is it to begin with? And once we get the arsenic out, why, then we have a hazardous waste problem, because there is nowhere to dispose of it."

Bush would like to restore the previous standard. You might recall that many Democrats howled that Bush was willing to poison people, but in these parts, Bush's proposal was greeted as simple common sense.
Stuart Buck


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Gowder--

Surely you've heard of the idea that the dose makes the poison? Responses are simply not linear to poison dosages. Highly concentrated arsenic filtered out of the water is a danger in a way that very low concentrations in the water aren't. The difference between 40 parts per billion and concentrated arsenic is immense.

Naturally occuring uranium isn't that dangerous, though it is slightly radioactive. Now if you ordered someone to separate all the Uranium-235 (.72% of natural uranium) from the U-238, then you would have a really toxic mess to deal with in the concentrated U-235. Note that uranium is commonly found in rocks, plants, animals, and even humans in small amounts.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that point is certainly true. It's pernicious nonsense that merely because something is naturally occuring that it's safe. In this case, arsenic's natural presence in the ore surrounding the water table does mean that it would be quite expensive to remove down at the concentrations we're talking about. (And the benefits, if any, are fairly limited, especially compared to the costs, at that point.)

A related belief, however, is the one that merely because something is bad in larger concentrations, that it must be also bad in smaller concentrations and that we should spare no expense in removing it completely. Often these two flawed beliefs are combined, so that we go to great extents to remove even the last parts per billion of a "unnatural chemical," while ignoring the sometimes greater dangerous of "naturally occurring" substances.

Environmentalists in particular seem to often resort to the "Noble Lie" mentioned before. Often they pretend that environmental quality indicators are actually getting worse, or that suspending a new regulation on arsenic will actually put more arsenic into the water somewhere as industrial pollution, etc.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Examples. Well, there's always the famous quote by Stephen Schneider of Stanford University (presented in full to avoid accusations of excerpts):

"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."

And there's the accusations of Chris Landsea.And there's the dishonest way that people continually referred to this as "increasing the level of arsenic" or "putting arsenic into the water."

Also there's the way that polls asking people about air pollution inevitably find that majorities think that it's getting worse, even though we know for certain that air pollution levels of all sorts have been dropping steadily. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the people most concerned with pollution levels are most likely to think that they're rising.) Here's one article and another discussing this, and it's rather easy to find poll results.

Here's an article by someone on the left talking about how environmentalists intentionally mislead on the Clear Skies proposal and try to make things look worse than they are in order to try to get additional cuts.

The Noble Lie has lots of adherants.

In any case, about the arsenic regulations, it is a little crazy to pretend that the EPA is motivated sheerly by environmental concerns with no political influence. Some things are regulated far more severely than others. (The last-minute timing of the arsenic regulations was suspicious in and of itself as well.)

People are not always rational about environmental concerns. Some will steadfastly oppose meat irradiation, favoring an increased chance of getting the "more natural" E.Coli. Many environmentalists (including Greenpeace International) have advocated eliminating all chlorine from drinking water, apparently preferring cholera outbreaks. The EPA was even somewhat complicit in this, also calling for massive decreases in chlorine usage under Browner-- Peru and other countries listened, and had a massive cholera outbreak, killing 10,000.

In the case of arsenic, in areas where the water table is surrounded by natural arsenides, it can be very expensive to remove it, much more expensive than preventative measures of not letting a pollutant in the water. The cost benefit may not be there for such communities-- paying the cost to remove it may end up killing more lives than are saved, by making things more expensive, causing people to get worse housing, eat a worse diet, and be affected in a variety of ways.

10:00 AM  

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