Radium in drinking water

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has conducted a study of naturally occurring radium in drinking water.  They found that elevated levels of radium occur most often in the central and eastern part of the country, see map.


Radium forms from natural radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in rocks and sediments derived from those rocks.  “Most rocks and sediments contain some uranium and thorium and, thereby, contain radium as well, but usually in small quantities. Uranium and thorium are most common in granitic and metamorphic crystalline rocks and in associated weathered sedimentary deposits in the central United States and mountainous regions of the East and West.”

Major findings from USGS report:

Concentrations of radium in principal aquifers used for drinking water throughout the United States generally were below 5 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level (MCL) for combined radium—radium-226 (Ra-226) plus radium-228 (Ra-228) —in public water supplies. About 3 percent of sampled wells had combined radium concentrations greater than the MCL.

The highest concentrations of combined radium were in the Mid-Continent and Ozark Plateau Cambro-Ordovician aquifer system and the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system. More than 20 percent of sampled wells in these aquifers had combined radium concentrations that were greater than or equal to the MCL.

Three common geochemical factors are associated with the highest radium concentrations in groundwater: (1) oxygen-poor water, (2) acidic  conditions (low pH), and (3) high  concentrations of dissolved solids.

The USGS notes: “Exposure to radium over long periods of time can increase the risk of cancer….Radium in the body behaves similarly to calcium and can replace calcium in tissues, particularly bone…Radiation exposure from radium received externally through washing, showering, or other uses of water is less of a concern since human skin tends to block exposure to alpha radiation and minimize penetration of beta radiation.”

Note that the USGS sampled only 1,266 wells nationwide and only 3% of those contained radium concentrations above the MCL.

Arizona State Geologist Lee Allison notes in his blog that “the water wells tested in Arizona are all below 1 picocurie per liter. However, only a handful of wells in Arizona were tested, all in alluvial aquifers in the south. No tests are reported from the Colorado Plateau, which has some of the highest concentrations and largest deposits of uranium in the nation.”

On an individual household level, radium is removed by ion-exchange (salt recharged) water softeners.

See a USGS fact sheet here.

Death Toll from Biofuels

It was just a short, filler article buried on page 13 of the Arizona Daily Star: “Rising demand for corn from ethanol producers is pushing U.S. reserves to the lowest point in 15 years, a trend that could lead to higher grain and food prices.”

In contrast, the media have been falling all over themselves speculating on the dangers of radiation from the leaking reactor at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility. Although the earthquake and tsunami there have been responsible for about 18,000 deaths, none, so far, have been attributed to radiation.

The consequences from our increasing use of ethanol have not received much press.   A report by Dr. Indur Goklany, writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (Volume 16 Number 1, Spring 2011), estimates that at least 192,000 excess deaths and 6.7 million additional Disability-Adjusted Life Years lost to disease have been caused by using food crops to make ethanol for fuel. These deaths have been mainly in third world countries where the rise in price of food staples or the loss of availability of food puts people over the edge. In these cases, being green is fatal.

Goklany’s report cited two studies using World Bank and World Health Organization data. Both studies covered 90% of the developing world’s population and “both indicate that higher biofuel production increases global poverty, even in the longer term.” See the full study here: http://www.jpands.org/vol16no1/goklany.pdf .

A rationale for using ethanol is to cut our dependence of foreign oil. But, so far, our increasing use of ethanol has not cut this dependence.

According to a report from the Manhattan Institute,

Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased seven-fold, to more than 700,000 barrels per day (bbl/d). During that period, however, oil imports increased by more than 800,000 bbl/d. (In addition, U.S. oil exports—yes, exports—more than doubled, to about 2 million bbl/d.) Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that oil imports closely track domestic oil consumption. Over the past decade, as oil demand grew, so did imports. When consumption fell, imports did as well. Ethanol production levels had no apparent effect on the volume of oil imports or on consumption.

Why didn’t increasing use of ethanol affect oil imports? According to the Manhattan Institute:

The answer to that question requires an understanding of the refining process. When sent through a refinery, a barrel of crude yields different “cuts,” which range from light products such as propane and butane to heavy products such as asphalt. Even the best-quality barrel of crude (42 gallons) yields only about 20 gallons of gasoline. Furthermore, certain types of crude oil, such as light sweet, a high-quality, low-sulfur grade, are better suited than others to gasoline or diesel production. Even the most technologically advanced oil refineries cannot produce just one product from a barrel of crude; they must produce several, and the market value of those various cuts is constantly fluctuating.

The implication is obvious: Corn ethanol has not reduced the volume of oil imports, or overall oil use, and likely never will, because it can replace only one segment of the crude-oil barrel. Unless or until inventors come up with a substance (or substances) that can replace all of the products refined from a barrel of crude oil—from gasoline to naphtha and diesel to asphalt—this country, along with every other one, will have to continue to rely on the global oil market—the biggest, most global, most transparent, most liquid market in human history.

That brings us to some ethical questions. Should we use food crops to make fuel? One entity addressing those questions is the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. (See report)

First they note:

Recent research suggests that assumed GHG benefits from increased use of corn-based ethanol may have been overstated. Emissions from indirect land use change occur when biofuels production displaces agricultural production, leading to additional land use change elsewhere. Some studies suggest this land use change ultimately causes an increase in net greenhouse gas emissions. When such market-driven effects are included, the lifecycle GHG emissions for U.S. corn-ethanol may increase from 135 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule to 177 g CO2e/MJ, which is nearly double that of gasoline at 92 g CO2e/MJ.

The Calgary paper then asks and discusses four questions:

1. Should biofuel production be managed with regard to effects on food and agriculture critical to poor populations?

2. Biomass typically produces less energy per unit of land over short time scales when compared with other sources of energy. Should we be developing low intensity energy if it results in the destruction of more land and natural areas than high intensity energy?

3. Land use impacts of large scale biofuel production may be significant and are likely to be persistent. Should we only be focusing on the ecological after-effects of climate change rather than the land impacts created by potential changes in energy systems?

4. Should we consider potential effects on rural and urban economies?

The report concludes in part:

There is a missing link today between methods of energy policy development and ethical considerations associated with broader social decision- making. Because the ethical implications of the transitions to new energy systems are seldom considered, the choices we make may have negative moral consequences and corresponding social costs.

In a previous post, I noted that increased use of ethanol fuel, especially E85, significantly increases ozone, a prime ingredient of smog, which even at low levels can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body’s immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

Ethanol may be the darling of the politically correct, but it is not the darling of the environment.

Radiation Fears in Perspective

There has been much concern and media hype about the radiation leaks from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor damage. One of the best summaries I’ve seen is from the Nuclear Science and Engineering department at M.I.T. Their short article explains radiation units and the health consequences of various exposure doses, and it discusses how much radiation actually leaked from the Japanese reactors. See the article here.

Another source is an article from the Health Physics Society at the University of Michigan. See their article here.

According to reports from Japanese officials, radiation readings outside the reactor site are “hardly above background.” They said that the highest dose detected briefly at the boundary of the evacuation zone was 17 millirems. The average background dose we all get from natural sources is about 360 millirems per year. One odd fact I ran into during research for this post is that bananas are radioactive enough to cause false alarms in the very sensitive detectors at ports of entry when scanning for smuggled nuclear material. Bananas are high in potassium, and potassium-40 is radioactive. One average banana will expose you to 0.01 millirem of radiation.

The political fallout is likely to last longer than the fallout of radiation.