Environmental Geochemistry and Health, 1992 l/bl. i4, page 34
Editorial The poisonous nature of arsenic is hardly news. Along with cyanide and strychnine, its surreptitious inclusion in food or drink has long been known as a convenient means of expediting an individual's translation into the hereafter. The use of arsenic as a tonic or a cure for skin conditions seems to be as old as its homicidal employment. Dr Fowler's arsenical solution (arsenic trioxide dissolved in a solution of potassium carbonate with a lavender flavour) was in use for something like 150 years from the 1780s. Yet, despite a long human involvement with the element, there is much uncertainty about its role in health and disease. Is it an essential micronutrient? Does it cause skin or other cancer?
At the 1991 "Trace Substances in Environmental Health - XV" meeting in Columbia, Missouri, a special session was devoted to arsenic. Following this, Dr john R. Fowle discussed with me the possibility of giving the element a wider exposure by devoting an issue of this journal to it. I was very happy to do this and the pages that follow are the fruits of his labours. He kindly oversaw the recruiting of authors and ensuring a rigorous review process. I do hope you, the reader, will enjoy this special issue, and that the ideas discussed might lead to a renewed interest in the element by the funding agencies.
Guest Editorial On the way from New York City to Baltimore January 3, 1992, the Santa Clara I encountered a gale off the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. The storm was sufficiently severe that 21 forty-foot long cargo containers broke from their lashings, wa:;hed overboard and sank. Four contained arsenic trioxide. The loss was not discovered until the ship reached port, and a near scandal erupted as the public became aware that 441 twenty-five gallon barrels of arsenic were lost at sea thirty miles off the New Jersey coast. If the containers could not be found or retrieved, people wondered just how bad was the damage going to be? Will shellfish beds be contaminated or destroyed? What about swimming, wilt it be unconditionally safe or safe only under certain conditions? All but two of the containers have since been found, including three of the four containing arsenic trioxide. Fortunately, although damaged, none of the barrels has ruptured. That would be good news if they were not in 100 feet of water. Recovery will be costly, and no one is happy, not even the news media. The populace wants all the containers to be retrieved. So do fishermen and resort owners who fear for their livelihood, but the shipping company is worried about the massive costs of salvage as is their insurance company. Newspapers were selling well for a few days alter the accident, but then the Coast Guard entered the picture, and they did something novel. They collected the facts, such as they existed, and they shared them widely and often. They assigned a communications team, including a scientific support co-ordinator, to deal with the press and the interested public, and rather than candy coating the incident the Coast Guard staff offered facts and their best guess estimates. They were careful to separate fact from policy. If news attention is any barometer, it seems they achieved the goal of avoiding public panic almost immediately. Admittedly, the jury is still out about whether the
scuttling of arsenic laden containers off the New Jersey coast will pose a health problem. Nonetheless, one lesson seems to be emerging from this incident. That is the importance of honest, effective communication in any constructive discussion of risk. As scientists we are sometimes loathe to face the fact that our technical input is not the only factor in setting safety standards, but let us face it, 'safety' is a social construct not a scientific notion. It is based more on the values of economics, social equity, and individual control than on knowledge of a defined health risk. Despite this, most environmental policy debates hinge on scientific matters. Why do not scientists seek a larger role in these debates? It is harder to discuss effectively scientific issues in public policy fora than in technical meetings. Not only must the technical content stand the most rigorous scrutiny during policy debates, but it must also be explained simply to be effective. Not glibly, but in terms people can relate to. Regulatory agencies have grappled with this dilemma for some time. Like the Coast Guard, the US Environmental Protection Agency is also dealing with arsenic in water, in this case drinking water~ At issue is the risk of cancer from exposure to drinking water containing arsenic, a natural contaminant. The public is worried, just like those along the New Jersey Coast. So are those in business to supply the public with water. What is the risk? What should we do? The papers in this issue attempt to evaluate the risk of arsenic in drinking water in terms that have meaning for the decision managers and the general public. Our hope is not only to present the technical issues, but to distil them in a simple effective way. We hope the papers stimulate you into thinking about how you may do the same on other equally pressing policy issues.
John R: Fowfe fit Washington, DC, USA