California Prison’s Drinking Water Cited for Excessive Arsenic Levels
by John E. Dannenberg
Whenever prisoners at California’s Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) watch the classic 1944 movie Arsenic and Old Lace, they have to swallow hard. That’s because the drinking water supply at KVSP was cited in December 2008 by the state Department of Public Health (DPH) for contamination that exceeded twice the maximum allowed levels of arsenic, a cumulatively poisonous heavy metal.
Although KVSP Warden Anthony Hedgpeth notified all staff and prisoners that there was no current danger, one can’t help remembering the movie’s little old ladies’ plot to poison their victims by spiking their wine with minute portions of arsenic over time. And it doesn’t inspire confidence to observe KVSP staff drinking bottled water while prisoners must begrudgingly quaff arsenic-contaminated well water. DPH ordered KVSP to come into compliance with the current federal standards by February 2009 or obtain approval for an extension. Hedgpeth notified KVSP prisoners that a new arsenic treatment system was planned for June 2009.
Contaminated prison drinking water is not uncommon. [See: PLN, Nov. 2007, p.1, Prison Drinking Water and Wastewater Pollution Threaten Environmental Safety Nationwide]. However, arsenic contamination is often overlooked because it is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Unless enough arsenic is ingested at one time to cause a violent reaction (often followed by a painful death), it will rarely be suspected. Indeed, naturally occurring arsenic contamination in water sources is normally so low that the long-term effects, such as cancer, skin disease, circulatory problems and renal disease, are not well documented. It is precisely due to arsenic’s stealthy nature that federal drinking water standards mandate testing for that particular type of contamination.
In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted lower maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for arsenic in drinking water. Previously set at 0.050 milligrams per liter (mg/L), the MCL limit was reduced to 0.010. Water suppliers were given until January 23, 2006 to come into compliance. Thereafter, the DPH commenced compliance tests in California. KVSP’s drinking water wells failed all quarterly tests performed in 2007 and 2008, with results ranging from 0.014 to 0.024 mg/L.
DPH initially issued a violation notice to KVSP on March 10, 2008, which required the facility to inform prisoners and employees of the contamination. KVSP posted notices that downplayed the seriousness of the situation, saying it would take a lengthy period of time for the minor arsenic levels to cause any health problems. Those with medical concerns were told to consult their physicians. But when KVSP failed to correct the problem, DPH cited the prison on December 12, 2008, noting violations of the Code of Federal Regulations, California’s Health and Safety Code, and Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations. DPH ordered KVSP to come into compliance with a corrective plan by February 1, 2009.
Disaffected prisoners filed administrative grievances, and a standard response was issued after the first grievance appeal was heard. That response quoted R.J. Geller, MD, with the California Poison Control System. Dr. Geller said the arsenic levels at KVSP were “insignificant,” and that the “expected numbers of health problems, either acute or chronic, caused at KVSP by arsenic at a concentration of 22 ppb [parts per billion] in drinking water is zero.” Dr. Sherry Lopez, KVSP’s Chief Medical Officer, called the issue “much more a regulatory problem than a public health problem.” Then again, it’s unlikely that Geller or Lopez have to drink arsenic-laced water. Prisoners’ requests for transfers to other facilities with non-contaminated water were denied.
KVSP opened in 2005 as a state-of-the-art prison. Nevertheless, no one could explain why it did not include a heavy metal water filtration system. Prison officials belatedly requested and received $2.5 million from the state legislature to install one. To date $629,000 has been spent on designing the system, but the balance of the money was siphoned off for other purposes and the filtration system was never completed.
Concerns about arsenic contamination persist in KVSP’s region. The nearby city of Delano operates one of eleven California water systems ordered by the EPA to reduce arsenic levels. Arsenic contamination has also been a problem at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville.
Dr. Gina Solomon, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (an environmental advocacy group), decried ignorance of the new arsenic contamination standards – particularly among disempowered populations such as prisoners. “The standard was set for a reason, and the reason is that arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans. So the clock is ticking. The longer that people are drinking the water, the higher the risk,” she said.
The two old ladies who starred in Arsenic and Old Lace would no doubt agree.
Sources: Los Angeles Times; Department of Public Health Compliance Order No. 03-12-080-037 (Dec. 12, 2008); KVSP bulletins; KVSP appeal log #KVSP-O-08
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