Arsenic persists in some Texas water supplies

Drinking water systems serving 51,000 people in several dozen rural Texas communities exceeded federal drinking water standards for arsenic for more than a decade, according to a report to be published Monday by an environmental group.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s report, titled “Don’t Drink the Water,” says the state should do more to warn Texans about the dangers of arsenic, a carcinogen.

None of the water systems identified in the report are in the Austin area. They are chiefly in parts of West Texas and South Texas.

Texas officials say the arsenic doesn’t pose an immediate threat and that the federal guidelines are conservative.

“It’s a long-term concern,” said Michael Honeycutt, who runs the toxicology division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Using state data, the environmental group’s report shows that the average arsenic concentrations in 34 communities have exceeded the federal health-based standard for at least the last decade, many at levels several times higher than the arsenic limit of 10 parts per billion. Most of the water systems have long-term averages of 10 to 20 parts per billion of arsenic.

State environmental officials say they are working with the drinking water systems to prod them into compliance. Honeycutt said the federal standard is based on research involving far greater exposure levels for decades.

But scientists interviewed by the American-Statesman raised concerns about the water quality in the communities highlighted by the report.

In Jim Hogg County in South Texas, more than 5,000 people have had drinking water with arsenic concentrations more than five times the limit in the Safe Drinking Water Act for at least five years, state records show.

“The high levels in a few of those regions are worrisome and have clearly been associated with increased cancer risk on a par with tobacco use,” said J. Christopher States, a professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and author of the book “Arsenic: Exposure Sources, Health Risks and Mechanisms of Toxicity.”

“I wouldn’t drink the water,” States said — even in those communities with 10 to 20 parts per billion arsenic.

‘Not an emergency’

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act has required public water supplies to limit arsenic concentrations in drinking water to no more than 10 parts per billion since 2006, to reduce long-term exposure to a toxin linked to lung and bladder cancers, neurological problems, and other illnesses.

Arsenic in Texas is largely naturally occurring, said David Klein, a Texas Tech University associate professor of environmental toxicology. But some arsenic can be traced back to its widespread use as a cotton field pesticide, he said.

Small-town water utilities “don’t have the money to drop it to 10 (parts per billion),” Klein said. Adding industrial-size reverse osmosis systems to get rid of the arsenic can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Environmental Integrity Project director Eric Schaeffer accused the Texas environmental commission of shrugging off the long-term consequences of arsenic — and federal authorities of not requiring states to do more to prevent the drinking of water with elevated levels of arsenic.

“This is not an emergency,” says part of a note that Texas requires local water utilities to send their customers when drinking water violates standards for arsenic. “However, some people who drink water containing arsenic excess of the (federal standard) over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer. You do not need to use an alternative water supply.”

Schaeffer said regulators are much more likely to issue notices to stop drinking water in cases of bacteria that could lead to immediate sickness.

“What about long-term exposure from something like arsenic?” he said. “Whatever their intent, the Texas health advisories suggest to these residents that it is safe to drink water with so much arsenic it flunks Safe Drinking Water Act standards. EPA needs to step in and require Texas to issue clearer warnings and do more to fix the problem.”

But Honeycutt said the notice is reasonable.

“We actually agree with EPA on this: It’s not an immediate health threat,” he said.

He continued: “If you just scare people, then what have you accomplished? You need to be reasoned; you need to notify people.”

Cancer link

Other toxicologists said the state should do more, saying that long-term arsenic exposure in the Texas communities presents problems for young people and pregnant women.

Some research has shown a “relationship between water arsenic and child intelligence,” said Joseph Graziano, a Columbia University pharmacology professor. He said arsenic exposure in the womb can also lead to elevated risks for disease.

“The language that ‘you don’t need to worry about it’ is really disturbing,” Graziano said.

He said notices should recommend pregnant women use an alternative supply and that homeowners can treat the water themselves.

“That said, it’s not trivial: It takes more than going to the hardware store and getting a simple Brita water filter,” Graziano said. A household reverse osmosis treatment system can cost a couple of thousand dollars, he said.

Fifteen years ago, a committee convened by the National Academies’ National Research Council confirmed evidence of a link between cancer and arsenic in drinking water.

“Even very low concentrations of arsenic in drinking water appear to be associated with a higher incidence of cancer,” Robert Goyer, a pathologist and chairman of the committee, said at the time.

Some states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Washington, advise residents not to drink water with more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

“Informing consumers is an important strategy to protect public health,” Schaeffer said. The ongoing drinking water calamity in Flint, Mich., in which lead from old pipes leached into the water as government environmental officials waffled about the danger posed to the public, “shows how information that confuses or misleads can leave communities in the dark, be toxic to the public trust, and delay actions needed to make drinking water safe.”

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