When Jeni Knack moved to Simi Valley, California, in 2018, she had no idea that her family’s new home was within 5 miles of a former nuclear and rocket testing laboratory, perched atop a plateau and rife with contamination. Radioactive cesium 137, strontium 90, plutonium-239, and tritium have all been reported to have been released at the site by various spills, leaks or open-air burn pits.
Once Knack learned about the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and the unusual number of childhood cancer cases in the surrounding community, she couldn’t ignore it. Sparkletts water service now supplies water to her family. She began sending her 6-year old daughter to kindergarten in August with two bottles of water and instructions not to refill them at school. Her home is connected to the Golden State Water Company.
A federal reportIn 2007, the water company acknowledged that two wells were at risk from contamination. “The EPA has said we’re at risk,” says Knack. And Golden State, she says, has at times used “possibly a very hefty portion of that well water.” To date, radioactivity above the natural level has not been detected in Golden State’s water.
Concerns from across the Country
All water contains some amount of radiation. However, the amount and nature of radiation can vary. One potential source is nuclear weapons production and energy from fissionable matter. Another source is mining for uranium. Radioactive elements can be introduced to water through medical treatments, such as radioactive iodine that is used to treat thyroid disorders. It can also be found in oil and gas drilling or other industrial activities that require cracking into rock containing radioactive elements. What’s more, because of their natural presence, these elements can occasionally seep into aquifers even without being provoked.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental nonprofit, is a partner for this reporting project. estimates that drinking water for more than 170 million Americans in all 50 states “contains radioactive elements at levels that may increase the risk of cancer.” In their Analysis of public water system data between 2010 and 2015.EWG focuses on six radioactive contaminants: radium, Radon, and Uranium. They found that California had more residents who are affected by the drought. Radiation in their drinking waters is lower than anywhere else in the U.S. But the state is not alone. About 80% are served by water utilities that have detectable levels radium. And concerns have echoed across the country — from abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation lands, to lingering nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project in Missouri, to contaminants leaching from phosphate mines in Florida.
Although drinking radioactive elements from contaminated water is not the only way to be exposed, it is a significant risk pathway, according to Daniel Hirsch, a former University of California Santa Cruz professor who has studied the Santa Susana Field Laboratory contamination. “One thing you don’t want to do is to mix radioactivity with water. It’s an easy mechanism to get it inside people,” he says. “When you drink water, you think you excrete it. But the body is made to extract things from what you ingest.”
Strontium 90, for instance, is one of the elements that mimics calcium. The body is more likely to store the contaminant in bones, increasing the risk of developing leukemia. Because radiation is more concentrated in rapidly growing tissue and bones, young children and pregnant women are at greater risk. “This is why pregnant women are never x-rayed,” says Catherine Thomasson, an independent environmental policy consultant based in Portland, Oregon. She notes that cesium can build up in the heart, pancreas and other tissues. It may remain there for some time, emitting radioactivity that can cause disease and damage.
Scientists believe that radiation can be harmful at any level. Radioactive elements can produce radiation at high levels that can cause birth defects, impair growth, and even cause cancer. cancerIn almost every part of the body. Early exposure can lead to long-term damage.
Health advocates worry that the government is not doing enough in protecting the public from radioactive contamination in drinking water. Since 1976, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) legal limits for various radioactive elements in community drinking water systems has not been updated. Many elements are regulated as a whole, rather than as individual elements, such as radionuclides 226 and 228. And water system operators, if they are required to monitor for radioactive elements, only need to do so infrequently — say, every six or nine years for certain contaminants.
Private wells remain unregulated in terms of the elements. This is especially concerning since Some nuclear power plants are located near rural areas where people rely on their private wells.More than one in ten Americans uses private wells or tiny water systems that only serve 15 homes.
Santa Susana Field Laboratory was originally located in rural areas when it was built. It was established around 70 years ago. Today, there are more than 700,000. Recent wildfires have exacerbated these residents’ concerns. The Woolsey Fire of 2018 started on the property, and it burned 80% its 2,850 acres. (1,153 hectares). The site’s levels of radioactive and chemical contamination increased over the next three months. exceeded state safety standards 57 times.
Hirsch identifies several potential sources of contamination in drinking water due to nuclear weapons and energy development. Wind can transport contamination off-site and deposit it in the soil. Gravity can also carry contaminants downhill. Rains can also carry contaminants downhill via rivers and streams that infiltrate groundwater sources. Although vegetation absorbs radioactive compounds from the soil it grows in, these contaminants are easily released into the environment by a fire.
While no tests have detected concerning levels of radioactivity in Golden State’s water, advocates and scientists argue that testing for radioactive elements remains inconsistent and incomplete across the country. Federal and state regulations don’t require monitoring for radioactive contaminants that are associated with known industrial activity at the site. Water companies are only required to test for some of the regulated pollutants once every several years.
“This is not an isolated matter,” says Hirsch. “We’re sloppy with radioactive materials.”
“We Need Stricter Regulations”
2018 was the same year that radioactive elements were released from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory by fires. There were also concerns about drinking water in the area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Guy Kruppa was the Belle Vernon Municipal Authority’s superintendent. He noticed major bacteria die-offs at his sewage treatment facility. These bugs are crucial in breaking down contaminants in sewage before it is discharged into Monongahela River. A drinking water plant is located about 1 mile (1.6km) downstream.
Kruppa and his associates eventually linked the low levels of bacteria to the leachate they received from the Westmoreland landfill. The landfill had begun taking waste from nearby fracking sites — material that included bacteria-killing salts and radioactive elements such as radium.
The Belle Vernon Municipal AuthorityThe court issued a warrant to the landfill to stop sending leachate. — the liquid stuff that flows off a landfill after it rains. “We sealed off the pipe,” Kruppa says.
Radiation is no longer being discharged from his plant. However, he is still concerned about where leachate might be going and, more generally speaking, about how weak regulations regarding radioactive waste could lead to contamination of drinking water. For example, the quarterly tests that Kruppa requires of his sewage treatment facility do not include radium. “The old adage is, if you don’t test for it, you’re not going to find it,” adds Kruppa.
Since at least a decade, concerns that radioactive elements from fracking could enter community drinking water sources has been increasing. A study led by Duke University researchers and published in 2013 found “potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal.” Kruppa’s actions in 2018 drove widespread media attention to the issue.
The state of Pennsylvania announced in July 2021 that it would order landfills to receive waste from oil or gas drilling sites. This will allow them to test their leachate for certain radioactive substances associated with fracking. The state’s move was a “good step in the right direction,” says Amy Mall, a senior advocate with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, which published a reportJuly: Radioactive waste from oil-and-gas production. “We do need more data. But we don’t think monitoring alone is adequate. We need stricter regulations as well.”
5 picocuries/liter is the EPA drinking-water standard for radium-226 (radium-228), which are the two most common isotopes. The California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment’s public health goal, set in 2006 and the basis of EWG’s study, is far more stringent: 0.05 picocuries per liter for radium-226 and just 0.019 picocuries per liter for radium-228. “There is a legal limit for some of these contaminants, like radium and uranium,” says Sydney Evans, a science analyst with EWG. “But, of course, that’s not necessarily what’s considered safe based on the latest research.”
“We don’t regulate for the most vulnerable,” says Arjun Makhijani, president of the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He identifies the first trimester during a pregnancy among the most risky periods of development.
Since the 1970s, technology has improved significantly in terms of testing for radioactive contaminants. “We have a rule limited by the technology available 40 years ago or more. It’s just a little crazy to me,” says Evans. Hirsch points out a series of reports issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine regarding health risks from radiation ionizing. “They just keep finding that the same unit of exposure produces more cancers than had been presumed,” he says. The most recent versionThe 2006 version of the report, which was published in 2006, found that the radiation dose for certain elements is about 35% more than the 1990 version.
In accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, the fourth review of national primary water regulations has been initiated by EPA. The results are expected in 2023. Advocates hope for stricter standards but such changes would only compound the problems many drinking water providers already have in finding the technology and finances necessary to meet these regulations.
The aquifer beneath Winona, Minnesota — which supplies drinking water to residents —Radium can naturally be found in natureThe radioactive element can cause problems for the city’s water department in reducing levels.
Recent tests of Winona’s drinking water have found levels of radium above federal standards. Residents were warned by city officials in April that long-term low-dose exposure can increase the risk of developing cancer. They did not recommend that people stop drinking the water.
The city is now looking to ramp up their use of a product called TonkaZorb, which has proven effective in removing radium at other drinking water plants, notes Brent Bunke, who served as the city’s water superintendent during the time of the testing. The product’s active ingredient is manganese, which binds to radium. The sand filter makes it easy to separate the clumps. Local coverageBunke compared it to cat litter. Bunke points out that the city is also planning to replace the filter media in its aging sand filter. All these efforts are costly for the city. “It’s the cost of doing business,” says Bunke.
Winona is not alone in the fight against ubiquitous radium. They are not likely to be the most affected. “Communities that are being impacted don’t necessarily have the means to fix it,” says Evans. “And it’s going to be a long-term, ongoing issue.” Over time, municipalities often have tove to drill deeper into the ground to find adequate water supply — where there tends to be even larger concentrations of radium.
Some are looking to the upstream for more equitable solutions. Stanford University researchers discovered a way of predicting when and where uranium will be released to groundwater aquifers. Dissolved calcium and alkalinity can boost water’s ability to pick up uranium, they found. This happens in the top 6 feet of the soil. Drinking water managers should ensure that this area is not reached by water as it seeps into the ground or is pumped from the ground.
The focus of this research has been on California’s Central Valley — an agricultural area rich in uranium. “When you start thinking about rural water systems, or you think about water that’s going to be used in agriculture, then your economic constraints become really, really great,” says Scott Fendorf, a professor of earth systems science at Stanford and coauthor on the study. “You can’t afford to do things like reverse osmosis” — a spendy form of filtration technology.
Radiation can be very difficult to get out of water. For uranium, reverse osmosis is possible. Activated carbon can reduce radon and strontium concentrations. However, standard filters for water treatment plants and homes will not remove all radioactive contaminants. Advocates and scientists stress the need to implement stronger regulations and monitor more closely for prevention. The push continues across the country, as the issue plagues nearly everywhere — an unfortunate truth that Knack now knows.
Why doesn’t her family simply move? “I’m not saying we won’t. I’m not saying we shouldn’t,” she says. “But I don’t even know where we’d go. It really looks like contaminated sites are not few, but all over the country.”