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Waterborne arsenic poses a cancer risk.

Hotly debated data on the bladder cancer risk posed by arsenic in drinking water are now confirmed in a new study, researchers say.

Studies in Taiwan had linked water naturally tainted with high concentrations of arsenic to a greatly elevated risk of bladder cancer. That finding raised concern in the United States, where this cancer remains one of the nine most common and where some water supplies contain high concentrations of the toxic element.

At issue was whether some additional factors might be exaggerating the risk among Taiwanese. Suspected culprits included an underlying genetic vulnerability to the cancer, the malnutrition endemic in arsenic-tainted Taiwan, and the presence of other water pollutants.

The new study, conducted by Claudia Hopenhayn-Rich of the University of California, Berkeley, and her coworkers, examined residents of Cordoba, an agricultural province in central Argentina with little incidence of malnutrition. The people have a European ethnic background similar to that of the U.S. population, and the water lacks the coincident pollutants seen in Taiwan.

In the March Epidemiology, Hopenhayn-Rich's team reports finding among Cordovans in rural areas a bladder cancer rate roughly double Argentina's average. The Cordoba water contains high natural concentrations of arsenic-an average of 179 micrograms per liter (ug/l). Risk was mildly elevated in towns with only moderate arsenic tainting.

Toxicologist Paul Mushak of PB Associates in Durham, N.C., argues that "if the new data are not irrefutable, they certainly are reasonably compelling" in justifying a lowering of the U.S. drinking water limit for arsenic, now 50 ug/l.

Barbara D. Beck of Gradient Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., also a toxicologist, remains unconvinced. Because the new study uses historical readings from area wells but lacks exposure estimates for individuals, she wonders whether the people who developed the cancer drank water from wells containing dramatically more arsenic than the reported average.

Hopenhayn-Rich says her group will attempt to compute actual arsenic exposures among Cordovan bladder cancer victims in a follow-up study to begin next month. If this and other studies find a similar link between arsenic and bladder cancer, says Kenneth P. Cantor of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., "we'll have a much more compelling set of data to act on... [and people who challenged the Taiwan data] will be silenced totally."
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Title Annotation:arsenic-contaminated water increases bladder cancer risk
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 24, 1996
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