Radiological Contaminants in Water
Radiological water contaminants, also known as radionuclides, occur naturally in very small amounts in the soil in some locations in the world, but effluent from nuclear power plants and some medical facilities represent a much larger health problem when ingested in drinking water.
Types of Radiological Contaminants
The most common forms of radionuclides found in water are listed below as well as how they get into groundwater.
Radon occurs in water as natural deposits of uranium decay in the earth�s crust. In municipal water systems, radon is vented into the air during filtration and poses little threat.
Radium is found in granite and other stone in the bedrock of the earth�s crust. Some aquifers that are especially deep have a higher chance to have traces of radium present, but naturally occurring radium very seldom causes any health problems.
Uranium is an element that is found all over the world in trace amounts. Only people that live in areas with large mining installations have an increased threat of unusually high concentrations of uranium in their water.
Alpha emitters are components of rock and soil that get into groundwater as natural deposits of radium and uranium decay. They can be man-made but pose little threat because natural processes render them harmless unless ingested in huge amounts.
Beta and photon emitters are the real villains of this group. They are primarily found in surface water as nuclear power plants, some medical facilities, and some industries dispose of their radioactive waste which sometimes leaches into the soil where it can get into groundwater.
The Impact on our Health
Over and over again, regardless of the source, long-term exposure or brief exposure in high doses, leads to cancer. Cancers of the bone, liver, stomach, lung, skin, kidneys, thyroid gland, and most other tissues are common, and medical science is still discovering other maladies that may be cancer-related. Twenty years after Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, medicine is still discovering the impact that this event is having on the health of the local population. Because they are still collecting information, they are slow to provide conclusive evidence.
What we do know is this: Of the 600,000 workers who were sent to clean up and contain the radiation, 40,000 have died thus far, mostly men in their 30�s and 40�s. Perhaps the most ominous aspect of all is that health experts from the National Academy of Sciences estimate that most cancers that result from exposure to radiation do not occur until 10 or 20 years later. In the next few years, we should have a much better idea of how this event has impacted the lives of people living and working nearby.
How to get your Water Tested for Radionuclides
If you get your drinking water from a public utility, you can contact them directly for a list of contaminants, including radionuclides, which are present in your water. Because these utilities are required by law to provide this information, there should be no charge. If you are one of the millions of people that get their water from a private well, you can contact your local health department for a list of laboratories that can screen your water for a variety of contaminants for a fee. However, if you wish to test for radionuclides, they may ask you to bring another water sample in a month or so as radionuclide content in water can vary significantly due to rainfall and other factors.