Answer to Question #12022 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Environmental and Background Radiation — Water

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

I am moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to Pleasant Grove, Utah. I found out that water there contains radium. I have two young toddlers, and I am worried about exposing my kids to radium.

Do ionic water filtration systems reduce the radium in water? How significant would our risk be in terms of equivalency—like is it the same as the radiation risk from one x ray per year or over a lifetime? Does the radium stay on clothing and toys if rinsed with the water? Can my kids go swimming? We will not be able to filter the bath water because it is an apartment. Do you know of any filters we can attach to the shower and bath faucet heads? If we eat produce, dairy, meat, and eggs from the area, are we increasing our radiation exposure in addition to what we're exposed to from the water? Why does it seem like areas of Utah have such low levels of cancer even though they have radium in the water supply?

A

You have asked a number of questions that clearly indicate your concern about radium hazards. As a father myself (actually a grandfather now!), I fully appreciate your concerns about your children. But let me put your mind to rest—you have no need to worry.

First, here's a little background. Radium, like some other elements, is present in trace amounts in all natural waters and in all the foods we eat. We all have a small amount of radium in our bodies, as do all plants and animals. The levels are quite variable but also very low—typically so low, in fact, that they are not a concern from a health standpoint.

Levels of radium that are considered safe (i.e., that meet regulatory standards) have been established by various governmental agencies. Individual states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and municipal water departments all monitor water to ensure that these levels are never exceeded. You can ask the water department in Pleasant Grove what their radium levels are in relation to the levels put forth in the standards, and you will doubtless find that the radium levels in the domestic water supply are well below the maximum acceptable levels. So, if you are going to use the Pleasant Grove public water supply, not to worry.

In addition, there is no need for concern about eating foodstuffs of all kinds, as the radium levels are insignificant from a health standpoint. There is no way that we can eliminate all radium from our diets, and indeed there is no need to do so, as these trace amounts in foodstuffs and water and in our own bodies are harmless.

Nonetheless, a small fraction of private water wells used by individuals may have levels of radium that approach or even exceed the levels set by the standards. Such situations are relatively rare and depend upon the geology of the area in which the private well is located. But radium levels in water can be measured easily, and if the levels are significant, the water can be treated to reduce the radium levels to well below the maximum acceptable level.

Finally, you ask about the low incidence of cancer in Utah, and the answer is lifestyle. A large proportion of Utah residents do not smoke or work in industries using carcinogenic materials, and they live in rural areas relatively free of air pollution. That, coupled with what we call clean living and perhaps good genetics, very likely accounts for the low incidence of cancer among the residents of Utah.

Ron Kathren, CHP
Professor Emeritus, Washington State University

Answer posted on 7 June 2017. The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.