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The Arithmetic of Arsenic

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

September 2001

AEI-Brookings Joint Center Working Paper No. 01-10; U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 135

What does cost-benefit mean, or do, in actual practice? When agencies are engaging in cost-benefit balancing, what are the interactions among law, science, and economics? This Article attempts to answer that question by exploring, in some detail, the controversy over EPA's proposed regulation of arsenic in drinking water. The largest finding is that science often can produce only "benefit ranges," and wide ones at that. With reasonable assumptions based on the existing science data, the proposed arsenic regulation can be projected to save as few as 0 lives and as many as 112. With reasonable assumptions, the monetized benefits of the regulation can range from $0 to $560 million. In these circumstances, there is no obviously right decision for government agencies to make. These points have numerous implications for lawyers and courts, suggesting the ease of bringing legal challenges, on grounds specified here, and the importance of judicial deference in the face of scientific uncertainty. There are also policy implications. Agencies should be given the authority to issue more targeted, cost-effective regulations. They should also be required to accompany the cost-benefit analysis with an effort to identify the winners and losers, so as to see if poor people are mostly hurt or mostly helped.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 67

Keywords: Arsenic, regulatory study, environment, cost-benefit, EPA

JEL Classification: I18, L3, L5

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Date posted: September 27, 2001  

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., The Arithmetic of Arsenic (September 2001). AEI-Brookings Joint Center Working Paper No. 01-10; U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 135. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=285171 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.285171

Contact Information

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )
79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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