(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — More than 170 million Americans, or around 52 percent of the entire population, may be at risk of radiation exposure through their drinking water, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), one of the country’s leading water testing organizations. The EWG published its findings based on a compendium of data collected from over 50,000 public drinking systems nationwide between 2010 and 2015. The report reveals a shocking trend: much of the nation’s drinking water “contains radioactive elements at levels that may increase the risk of cancer.”
The EWG reported its findings after President Donald Trump re-nominated Kathleen Hartnett White as head of the White House’s own Council on Environmental Quality. In an interview in 2011, Hartnett White admitted to falsifying data while she was head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), in a scheme to show radiation levels were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) limit in communities where levels actually exceeded those thresholds. She justified the falsification because she said she “[didn’t] believe the science of [radiation-caused] health effects” espoused by the EPA. Hartnett White also said she “placed far more trust” in the work of the TCEQ, which she admitted again in 2017 ignored EPA regulations. While her name has been withdrawn at her own request, many remain concerned about the safety of America’s drinking water.
According to EWG’s research, radium is the most common radioactive element found in U.S. water systems, and the problem is pervasive coast to coast. The non-profit NGO found radium 226 and radium 228 lurking in tap water in all 50 states. The EPA on the other hand, lumps the two isotopes together when measuring. So, in at least one capacity, the EWG went a step further than the federal government in testing America’s water supplies.
Radium is naturally occurring and usually found in drinking water at levels less than one picocurie per liter. The EPA has set the maximum level for safe drinking water at five picocuries per liter. As reported repeatedly by EnviroNews, any exposure to ionizing radiation presents a risk. Radiation is also bioaccumulative, and like many other contaminants, can bioconcentrate its way up the food chain. The EPA classifies all ionizing radiation carcinogenic.
“Radium in drinking water is a nationwide problem, in the same way that radon in homes has become a primary health concern. Although radium in water is often natural, certain industries can exacerbate the problem. Oil and gas production can cause local groundwater contamination by radium,” said Marco Kaltofen in an email to EnviroNews. Kaltofen is the Affiliate Research Engineer for the Nuclear Science and Engineering Program in the Department of Physics at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on radiation in the environment.
About 20% of radium consumed through drinking water is absorbed by the body. Some of that will be excreted through the urinary tract; the rest, the body interprets as calcium, which in turn gets deposited in tissues and bones. Exposure to high levels of alpha radiation, the primary form in radium, for extended periods, may depress the immune system and cause anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, and some types of cancer.
“The most visible human-caused radium problem is at the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri. This is an illegal radioactive waste dump where [the] EPA has recently agreed to spend more than $200,000,000 to begin removing some of the radium and other radioactive materials,” said Kaltofen, whose paper about that ongoing crisis is set to be published in the Journal of Applied Radiation and Isotopes soon.
As for the EWG, the group is not impressed with EPA standards, saying that the agency relies on science collected in the 1970s, and is more concerned with the feasibility and cost of removing contaminants from the water system, rather than placing human health first.
Bill Walker, Editor-in-Chief and Vice President with the Environmental Working Group wrote this:
Radiation in tap water is a serious health threat, especially during pregnancy. But the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limits for several types of radioactive elements in tap water are badly outdated. And President Trump’s nominee to be the White House environment czar rejects the need for water systems to comply even with those outdated and inadequate standards.
The EWG decided that instead of assessing the threat to public health by comparing its data to the “EPA’s 41-year-old legal limits,” that it would instead stack the findings against the “respected and influential” California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment. That agency set health goals in 2006, and maintains separate safety thresholds for both radium 226 and 228 – levels that are “hundreds of times more stringent than the EPA limit for the two isotopes combined.”
For example, where the EPA’s safety limit is five picocuries per liter, the California public health goal for radium 226 is 0.05 picocuries per liter, while for radium 228 it is just 0.019 picocuries per liter. The public health goals set by the California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment are not enforceable by law.
Radium isn’t the only contaminant the EWG found though. The group looked for six different types of radiation, including radon and uranium. The EWG also created a tap water database and interactive map to help citizens learn more about the water quality where they live and to display highlighted areas where radium is a pervasive problem.
The EWG has been conducting extensive water testing throughout the U.S. for years. In August of 2017, EnviroNews published an article about another EWG study that revealed at least 250 million Americans are also drinking Chromium 6, a.k.a. “the Erin Brockovich carcinogen,” in their tap water. In that article, Robert Colman, a project manager with the EWG, pointed out that the contamination numbers are almost certainly even higher than their research indicated because “water from most smaller utilities and private wells usually is not tested for chromium 6,” leaving people to wonder if that may also be the case for radiation.
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