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What is Radium?
Radium is a naturally occurring element that is found in low levels in
Radium is an element that that occurs in nature at low levels. It is found
in nearly all rock, soil, water, plants and animals. Radium is one of
several types of elements which changes forms. When it changes forms, it
releases excess energy. When a radium atom breaks down, it releases energy
in the form of two types of radiation. These are known as alpha and gamma
radiation. Often a number follows the term radium (radium 226 or radium
228). The number refers to the total number of protons and neutrons within
the atom. Different forms of radium breakdown at different rates. Each form
releases different types of energy.
How does radium get into my drinking water?
Radium was deposited in ancient seas that now make up the Florida aquifer,
where we get our drinking water.
In Florida, some sediment left behind by ancient seas has radionuclides from
nature. Radionuclides are atoms with unstable nucleuses. Water passing
through sediments will build up things in the water, including radium.
What is the drinking water standard for radium?
All drinking water has some chemicals in it. The US Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) sets standards for the amount of chemicals safe drinking water
can contain. The total amount of radium allowed in drinking water is 5
picocuries for each liter of water. That is a very small amount.
EPA sets maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) allowed in drinking water. MCLs
are levels of chemicals that can be in water that EPA still finds safe to
drink. The process for measuring radiation is complex. Scientists test the
rate that radioactive material decays in measurement units called “curies.”
The level of radioactivity in water is very low. It is measured in even
smaller units, called picocuries (pCi). One picocurie equals one
one-trillionth of a curie. In addition to radium, the gross alpha or total
alpha radiation is measured when a water sample is taken. This measures the
sum of radioactivity from many potential sources including radium. This
total is a check to see if there may be other sources of radiation.
For drinking water standards, these units are determined per liter of
water (about a quart). EPA bases current water quality standards on someone
drinking two liters of water per day for a lifetime (70 years):
- The MCL for total radium (combined radium 226 and radium 228) in
water is 5 picocuries per liter (5 pCi/L), and
- The MCL for gross alpha in water is 15 picocuries per liter (15 pCi/L).
What are the health risks of low-level radiation exposure?
We are all exposed to small amounts of radiation everyday
with no ill health effects. As the amount of radiation increases or the
length of time you are exposed increases, the potential for ill health
effects increases as well.
A lifetime of exposure to low-level radiation may increase
the risk of getting some types of cancer such as bone cancer. The higher the
exposure level and the longer amount of time someone is exposed, the greater
the risk of getting cancer. By contrast, lower levels of exposure for
shorter periods add little added risk for cancer.
People come into contact with radiation every day. This is
known as “background exposure.” However, for the most part, this exposure
has no harmful effects. For example, people are exposed to radiation that is
released when some naturally-occurring elements break down. They are also
exposed when cosmic rays from space reach the earth. The amount of radiation
one would get from a glass of water with an acceptable concentration of
radium 226/228 would still be less than 1% of what else they are exposed to
each day. Drinking water with a level of 5 pCi/L for a year is about the
same as one chest x-ray. It is also about the same as cosmic radiation
received during about five flights from Maryland to California.
Background exposure to things like radium in drinking water
plays a very small role in a person’s risk of getting cancer. However,
efforts are still made to reduce risks of exposure. For this reason,
standards are set for levels of radium and other radionuclides in public
drinking water systems.
What other risks of cancer can radium in drinking water cause?
Cancer is unfortunately a very common disease. While causes
of cancer are often unknown, it makes sense to limit our exposure to
anything that has the potential to increase our health risk. There are
simple and effective methods to remove radium from drinking water.
Florida Department of Health (DOH) acknowledges the public’s
need to know about radium in drinking water and what added risk of cancer it
represents. First, it is vital to know that, in general, cancer is not a
rare disease. In fact when looking at all cancers from all causes in the
U.S. and Florida, the projected rate during someone’s lifetime is that one
out of three people will get cancer. That is about 3,333 out of 10,000
people. Of those 3,333, three out of four people will die from cancer. EPA
cites the likely risk of getting cancer in a lifetime due to drinking two
liters per day of water with radium at the MCL is much lower than the rate
of all cancers in the population, 1 out of 10,000 people.
What if levels of radium in my drinking water are higher than drinking
water standard? Can I use my water?
Drinking water with levels of radium above the standard MCL over a short
time does not greatly raise the likely lifetime cancer risk. However,
private well owners should try to meet the standard recommended by DOH. That
means they should keep an average annual level of radium below the MCL.
Using water for things like showering and bathing is not considered
consumption like drinking. Such uses do not greatly increase health risks.
How do I know if I have radium 226/228 in my well?
The best way to know is to have your well tested by a certified laboratory.
There are several DOH approved laboratories in Florida that test for
radionuclides in drinking water. Please see the attached list of approved
How can I remove radium 226/228 from my well water?
Radium can be removed from your drinking water using a water filter called a
reverse osmosis and ion exchange filter. A list of water filters that will
remove radium can be found at www.nsf.org. Some home owners have been able
to use water softeners to effectively remove radium but only testing your
water after a water filter is installed will tell.
The U.S. EPA recommends putting in home treatments or filters to remove high
levels of radium 226/228. The systems that work the best are reverse osmosis
and ion exchange. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International
web-site (www.nsf.org) lists models of water systems that have been tested
to take radium out of water. (See the attached list of types of water
systems.) Other water softeners may also work, but have not been tested.
Even a tested model will not work properly if the homeowner does not keep it
up properly. People on a low sodium diet should think about how much extra
sodium the use of an ion exchange (water softener) unit may add to their
What if I already have a treatment system installed on my well?
Like other devices we rely on daily – such as air conditioners – these
systems work best when properly kept up.
Who can I call if I have more questions?
- Palm Beach County Health Department
- Florida Department of Health, Bureau of Water Programs in
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Hotline
(1-800-426-4791 or 1-877-EPA-WATER).
Where can I get more details?
U.S. EPA and Florida DOH websites:
This website will be updated regularly by the Palm Beach County Health