Nevada Town Needs Act of Congress to Learn Blood Arsenic Levels

By Lisa J. Wolf

CRESCENT VALLEY, Nevada, March 20, 2007 (ENS) - The community of Crescent Valley in Eureka County, with a population of just over 200 residents, has a drinking water arsenic level of 15 parts per billion, ppb, according to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection.

This level is five ppb above the 2006 federal Safe Drinking Water Standard and since Eureka County presently has no exemption to this standard, it seems the county is not in compliance with the federal and state arsenic rules.

Eureka County is not alone - 26 arsenic exemption applications remain pending, including water systems in Lander and Elko counties, until the State Environmental Commission meets again this fall to consider these applications.

There are those in the mining and ranching community of Crescent Valley who are concerned about the effects of arsenic on themselves, their children, and senior citizens. They wish to find out their arsenic levels and to determine whether their current health problems are due to arsenic poisoning.

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Residents of Eureka County at the 2006 County Fair (Photo courtesy Eureka County Fair)
People are wondering whether their nausea, diarrhea and headaches are linked to arsenic ingestion and what kinds of diseases the elderly could be exhibiting that are linked to arsenic.

But to get a comprehensive assessment and survey of the population's arsenic levels and health by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, will literally require Congressional intervention.

Although the 2001 report "EPA Rule National Primary Drinking Water Regulations; Arsenic and Clarifications to Compliance and New Source Contaminants Monitoring" shows that the agency agreed with the National Research Council that studies of subpopulations such as children, teenagers, pregnant and nursing women and the elderly have been inadequate, the EPA has not commissioned or contracted out such studies.

Tulbir Bakshi of the National Research Council, NRC, said the council has called on the EPA for additional studies of arsenic on sub-populations, but until they receive a contract from the EPA, the NRC cannot move forward. Bakshi said, "Call your senators," to get Congress to require the EPA to contract new arsenic health studies.

The EPA has declared itself not subject to "Executive Order 13045: Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks." The agency states that this is because it "does not have reason to believe the environmental health risks or safety risks addressed by this action present a disproportionate risk to children."

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Arsenic in drinking water can cause serious health problems, even death. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The EPA permits states to grant exemptions to the arsenic standard based on a determination that such a "variance will not result in an unreasonable risk to health (URTH) to the public served by the public water system."

However, as subpopulation studies have been deemed necessary and have not been performed, how the EPA can offer such an assurance to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection, the Nevada Environmental Commission, municipalities, the residents of Crescent Valley and the general public is unclear.

The EPA itself states on the back of its CD, "Interactive Workshop on Arsenic Removal From Drinking Water," that "Studies have linked long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate. Non-cancer effects of ingesting arsenic include cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological and endocrine (e.g., diabetes) effects. Short term exposure to high doses of arsenic can cause other adverse health effects."

The EPA specifies that the public must be notified of the health risks regarding arsenic in their water system. After the new federal arsenic Safe Drinking Water Standard became effective on January 23, 2006, water providers "must provide public notification to consumers for any violations."

Ask people in Crescent Valley the last time they were notified about arsenic in their drinking water or that they currently have no exemption, and they cannot remember.

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The Crescent Valley Town Center is the administrative hub of this central Nevada community. (Photo courtesy Eureka County)
To access federal and state monies, Eureka County Public Works Director Ron Damele plans to use all nine years of possible exemptions before remediating Crescent Valley water. He has not done cost analysis of treatment options since costs will change in nine years.

However, Bryan Swain of WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development in New Mexico, which is part of the Arsenic Water Technology Partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, recommended visiting "our website at http://www.arsenicpartners.org" to use the CoAsT decision tool.

Swain said the tool "will guide your water managers through a process and provide some suggestions for solution to your arsenic levels and associated costs."

The Arsenic Water Technology Partnership program, supported with $7 million in congressional appropriations through the Department of Energy's Office of Science, moves technologies from bench-scale to demonstration. It enables water utilities, particularly those serving small, rural communities and Indian tribes, to implement the most cost-effective solutions to arsenic treatment needs.

Even the 36 Nevada water systems that received the first exemptions to the federal arsenic standard are required by the Nevada State Environmental Commission to "investigate and secure, to the extent that funds are available, all sources of financial assistance by July 23, 2007."

They must also "complete an evaluation of compliance alternatives, including retaining the services of an engineer and conducting pilot testing as needed."

These 36 water systems must "select a final compliance option by January 23, 2008," although small systems serving populations of less than 3,000 may qualify for "an extension to this exemption if the system demonstrates significant progress during this three year period."

Had Eureka County have received an exemption, it would be required to complete these steps.

Some people in Crescent Valley are buying bottled water or installing water filters at home to avoid arsenic. A point-of-use filter that addresses arsenic is available at Home Depot in Elko for approximately $300, an expense seniors and low-income families can ill-afford. Some Crescent Valley people remain unaware of the arsenic in their drinking water.

The Nevada Department of Environmental Protection is hosting a videoconference water workshop on Friday, March 30 from 9 to noon. It will include an "overview of the latest technologies used for the removal of arsenic from drinking water supplies" including a "discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the technologies."

Viewing is available in Crescent Valley at the elementary school and a viewing site is being arranged for the town of Eureka. For information contact Crystal Montecinos at 775-240-1396, email: xtelle@aol.com.

Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR, describes symptoms of arsenic poisoning that include severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting and bloody diarrhea; cardiovascular and respiratory effects including low blood pressure, shock, congestive heart failure, and swelling and/or fluid accumulation in the lungs and respiratory failure.

Symptoms of fluid accumulation in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema, include difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, excessive sweating, anxiety and pale skin. If left untreated, pulmonary edema can lead to coma and even death due to inadequate oxygen supply.

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Skin lesions on head and hand caused by arsenic poisoning of this man in Bangladesh (Photo by Professor Richard Wilson courtesy Harvard University)
Arsenic ingestion can cause neurologic effects including light-headedness, headache, weakness, lethargy, delirium, pain in the the peripheral nervous system, brain disorders, convulsions, coma, and narrowing of blood vessels in the legs and sometimes in the arms, restricting blood flow and causing pain. In severe cases, gangrene may develop, requiring amputation of the limb.

Arsenic ingestion causes liver and kidney problems such as elevated liver enzymes, blood in the urine, smaller than normal elimination of urine compared to the amount of fluid consumed, increased protein in the urine, and death of cells in the kidney.

Effects on the blood include low white, red and platelet blood counts.

Horizontal lines of discoloration known as Mees' lines can appear on fingernails and toenails due to arsenic poisoning.

Skin lesions may appear. Darkening of skin or nails and thickening of the skin are delayed hallmarks of chronic arsenic exposure. The classic appearance of dark brown patches with scattered pale spots is sometimes described as "raindrops on a dusty road."

Anemia often accompanies skin lesions in patients chronically poisoned by arsenic; and lung cancer and skin cancer are serious long-term concerns in cases of chronic arsenic exposure.

According to the ATSDR, arsenic toxicity can be determined by urine and hair analysis, blood and nerve testing.