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What is Radium?

    Radium is a naturally occurring element that is found in low levels in nature.

    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 labs.

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 daily diet.

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
    (561) 837-5900.   www.pbchd.com

  • Florida Department of Health, Bureau of Water Programs in Tallahassee at
    (850) 245-4250. www.doh.state.fl.us

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Hotline
    (1-800-426-4791 or 1-877-EPA-WATER). www.epa.gov

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 Department.


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MyFlorida.com - www.myflorida.com - opens a new window  Automated Community Connection to Economic Self-Sufficiency    Welcome to the Florida Community Health Assessment Resource Tool Set (CHARTS).  It is our hope that you will find Florida CHARTS informative and easy to use. This site includes such health statistics as births, deaths, disease morbidity, population and behavioral risk factors. - opens a new window Jobs within the State of Florida - State Job Search - opens a new window

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http://www.floridakidcare.org/ - opens in new window The Health Care District has launched a new program called Vitahealth.  This is a low cost policy for residents of Palm Beach County who have no health insurance coverage or have lost their coverage for over 6 months.  Details are available by calling 866-930-0035 or on the web at www.vitahealth.orgTen-year plan to end homelessness in Palm Beach County - opens a new window

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