Radium and Uranium in Public Drinking Water Systems
What Are Radium and Uranium?
Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive metal. Radium is formed when uranium decays in the environment. Small amounts of radium and uranium occur in groundwater in certain parts of Georgia. Radium can be found in groundwater more frequently in the southern Coastal Plain region. Uranium in groundwater occurs mainly in the northern Piedmont region. As a result, a small number of public drinking water systems have recently been identified that exceed the federal drinking water standards for radium and uranium.
Radioactive elements are unstable in nature and to reach a more stable condition, they give off energy, or radiation. The main type of radiation emitted by radium and uranium is the alpha particle. Initial water testing is usually for alpha radiation, and additional testing is required to identify uranium and radium.
While this is not an immediate health concern, you should know what is in your drinking water. This brochure will help you understand the problem, how it affects you, and what can be done to reduce or eliminate exposure.
Is My Water Safe?
Testing public drinking water systems for radioactivity has been required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since the 1970’s. The EPA establishes maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for radioactive contaminants, and MCLs recently become more protective for some substances. Current MCLs are well below levels at which health effects have been observed. Therefore, they are assumed to be protective of the public’s health.
In Georgia, about two percent of the public drinking water systems have radium or uranium at levels above the MCLs. This is naturally occurring and not the result of pollution. If your water system is affected, your water provider will notify you, and they will take measures to reduce the levels and keep you informed.
What Are the Health Effects from Exposure?
Radium and uranium in water may pose a health risk when the water is used for drinking and cooking over many years. Skin contact with water containing radium and uranium does not constitute a health risk. A small portion of ingested radium and uranium is absorbed into the body from the digestive tract but most is eliminated. Absorbed uranium settles in body tissues, and over a period of time it can affect kidney function. Absorbed radium also deposits in body tissues, primarily in bones, slightly increasing the risk of cancer.
The increased cancer risk associated with consuming water containing radium at the MCL for one year is comparable to one chest X-ray, or the cosmic radiation received during one round trip flight from Georgia to California.
What Should I Do?
We cannot eliminate radiation from our environment. We can, however, reduce possible health risks by minimizing our exposures to it. The risks to health from radium in water do not represent a health emergency and radium can be controlled by your water provider by using treatment or finding a supply with lower levels.
The risk estimates* from exposure to radium and uranium in drinking water assume that an individual drinks two liters of water each day for 70 years. If you drink less tap water or consume more bottled water instead, your health risk will be reduced.
Infants and young children are the population most at risk for adverse health effects from repeated exposure to radium and uranium in drinking water. Because of their body weight and developing systems, infants and children are exposed to higher doses. Their growing bodies absorb more contamination and can sustain permanent damage if exposures occur during critical growth stages.
Therefore, pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant, infants and small children are sensitive populations that should avoid consuming large quantities for an extended period of time.
The estimated health risks from exposure to low levels of radium and uranium are small, and short term exposures pose only extremely small risks. Talk to your health care provider regarding your particular health concerns.
* Risks estimates are only for radionuclides tested and their progeny in equilibrium.