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Radionuclide in water

Exposures to radionuclides from drinking water can result in the increased risk of cancer or kidney problems

Radionuclide in water   -- Radionuclide contamination of drinking water is not much talked about and do not receive as attentions as pharmaceutical drugs in water. Although these naturally occurring contaminants are believed to be present in low concentration in drinking water systems, EPA says long-term exposures to radionuclides from drinking water can result in the increased risk of cancer or kidney problems.

Radionuclides are everywhere. They can travel through the environment through air, water and soil, even in some foods. We are constantly exposed to radiation from radionuclides. They are present in bedrock minerals such as iron, arsenic, and quartz. Radionuclide can enter drinking water through erosion or chemical weathering of these natural deposits. Whenever ground water moves through the cracks in bedrock that contains the mineral deposits, radioactive minerals can leach out into the groundwater system and they easily dissolve in and contaminate drinking water supply—when the pH of groundwater is low.


Radionuclides released to the environment as a result of human activities such as stormwater, mining operations, nuclear power activities, industrial and medical wastewater discharges.

When they undergo spontaneous changes, radionuclides emit three radioactive particles namely alpha, beta, and gamma which are capable of destabilizing body cells which can result into death or unnatural reproduction of cells in the body.  


Drinking water can come from either groundwater sources or surface water sources such as rivers, lakes, and streams. Water can pick up radioactive material as it flows through the rocks, soil or cracked cement surrounding a water source, therefore contaminating that water source.


How would you know you have radionuclides in your water?

Although EPA regulates public water systems, it does not have the authority to regulate private drinking water wells. However, under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA sets guidelines for radioactive contaminants that well owners can reference.


Radionuclides in drinking water are odorless and tasteless. Water supply authorities have the obligations to let consumers know what is happening with their water. Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR)—annual water quality reports, issued by the utility on July 1st of every year will also contain this information. If a standard is exceeded, the utility must notify customers. Also, according to EPA's Compliance Guide, water authorities must contact consumers, if they have MCL violation; if the state finds out the water supply authority is in violation of other monitoring or testing requirements. In addition, if there is an MCL violation of radionuclides, the authority must include the specific health effects in the CCR.


Regulated Radionuclide



30 µg/l

Radium 226/228

5 pCi/L

Gross alpha particle

15 pCi/L

Bea/photon emitters

4 mrem/yr



EPA estimates that about 15% of American households depend on private well water supplies. Unlike public drinking water systems, wells generally are not regulated. Therefore, these households must take special precautions to ensure that their water is safe to drink. It is recommended that private well owners have their water tested to determine if radionuclides are present. Also due to variability in the mineral radioactivity level of well water, it is recommended that at least two samples (taken a month or two apart, if possible) should be taken before conclusions are reached regarding the average concentration of any radionuclide. Water testing kits or equipments are available commercially, or a water testing companies can be contracted to do the test.


What level is too much?

Drinking water standards are set by the USEPA which has determined that certain radioactive minerals above specified maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) are a dangerous to human health.  The major health problems associated with uranium is toxicity to the kidneys; radium is increased risk of bone cancer.  Compliance with the MCL guidance will reduce uranium exposure for 620,000 persons, protection from toxic kidney effects, and reduced risk of cancer.

Treatment options for drinking water contaminated by nucleotides

Radionuclides can be treated with devices intended and installed for the removal of hardness, iron, manganese and nitrates. Reverse osmosis and ion exchange point-of-use (POU) water treatment devices are approved by EPA. POU water treatment devices treat water at locations where is dispensed such as kitchen faucet, shower, or any other locations in the house or offices.  Lime softening is also recommended as a treatment option to remove radium and uranium from drinking water.

Reverse Osmosis   – A method used to effectively separate water from contaminants.  It's effective to remove inorganics including heavy metals and radionuclides.  It is estimated that reverse osmosis water filter can remove up to 98% of radium from drinking water. This treatment unit is ideal for all groundwater, and surface water supply sources.


Ion Exchange   – A chemical process where ions from two different molecules are exchanged.  For instance, ion exchange materials like resin or zeolites will remove ions that cause hardness in drinking water and exchange with acceptable ions. This treatment unit is ideal for all groundwater supply sources.

Lime Softening   – A process where calcium, magnesium, and radionuclide ions are precipitated from drinking water by lime.


For more information on radionuclides in drinking water, you may contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visit EPA   Safe Drinking Water   website.  


Sources:   Radionuclides in Drinking Water: A Small Entity Compliance Guide, USEPA
Ground Water and Drinking Water: Questions and Answers, November 2000, USEPA
Radionuclides: Tech Brief, National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, March 2000
Massachusetts DEP: Drinking Water Program. Available at http://www.mass.gov/dep/water/drinking/fsrads.htm



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