Calls for State Probe into Radium in Drinking Water

Jon Hurdle | February 7, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists say looser EPA limit may not protect public health after report finds hundreds of NJ water systems contain radioactive element at levels above that recommended by California

water dripping faucet
Environmentalists are calling for a state investigation into radium in drinking water after a report found almost 400 New Jersey water systems contain the radioactive element at levels that exceed a tough standard recommended by the state of California.

Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit whose advocacy includes clean water, said there are 396 New Jersey water systems serving more than 5 million people where radium 228 and 226, both potential carcinogens, were detected between 2010 and 2015 above the level proposed by the California authorities as posing no significant health risk.

Still, only three New Jersey water systems serving just 436 people were found with radium at above a much looser legal limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indicating a wide disparity between the two standards, according to the report, based on data from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The widespread occurrence of radium at above the California standard should be investigated by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists that advises the DEP, said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

He said the DWQI’s work on the PFC family of chemicals since 2014 has recommended much stricter standards than the EPA guidelines, and so the EWG research raises questions about whether the same approach should be adopted for radium, especially at a time when the federal agency is weakening many environmental regulations.

EPA standard not ‘health protective’?

“This analysis begs the question that the EPA’s standard is not health protective, and we need the Drinking Water Quality Institute to be looking at the California standard, and to be looking at the amount of radium in our drinking water,” O’Malley said. “This is not just one or two water utilities — it’s millions of people and hundreds of systems.”

The case for a New Jersey-specific radium investigation by DWQI is made stronger by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt whose policies have weakened environmental protections on many fronts, O’Malley said.

“Especially in the age of Scott Pruitt, we should not assume that the EPA health standard is the gold standard,” he said.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the DWQI began to investigate radium in 2010 but the work got shelved when the panel stopped meeting for almost four years. She said the earlier work could be easily restarted.

“Radium in water is a dangerous contaminant that needs to be regulated to provide people with safe drinking water,” she said.

Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist who chairs the DWQI, declined to comment on the EWG report, saying he was not an expert on radium.

Among the report’s examples was the New Jersey American Water Atlantic County system, serving about 120,000 people; it was found with an average radium level of 1.403 picocuries per liter, well inside the EPA’s limit of 5 pCi/L but outside the California standards of 0.05 and 0.02 for radium 226 and 228, respectively.

In Woodbury City Water Department, serving some 11,000 people, the combined radium level was 1.21 pCi/L, the same as reported for New Jersey American Water’s western division, serving about a quarter-million people, the report said.

Radium 226, radium 228

Across the state, radium 228 was found at above the California level in 232 New Jersey water systems serving about 2.9 million people, while radium 226 was detected in 164 systems with some 2.2 million customers, according to EWG’s national Tap Water Data Base.

Data on individual water systems that contain radium above EWG’s recommended health limits, as well as other contaminants, can be found in the EWG’s Tap Water Database.

Nationwide, more than 170 million people served by some 22,000 utilities in all 50 states detected radium in their water at levels that may increase their risk of cancer, the EWG report said.

EWG said the EPA’s health limit, set in 1976, is outdated, and is based on the cost and feasibility of removing contaminants rather than on a scientific assessment of what is needed to fully protect human health. By contrast, the California standard was recommended by the state’s Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment in 2006.

Despite the aggressive California standard, it is only a recommendation, and the state’s legal limit is the same as the EPA’s, EWG said.

Naturally occurring element

An EPA spokesman declined to respond to the report or say whether the agency’s standard is fully protective of public health.

“EPA sets limits for radionuclides, including radium, in public drinking water through the Safe Drinking Water Act,” the spokesman said. “Local water suppliers must follow these limits and are required to inform citizens about the level of radionuclides in their water.”

In New Jersey, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna noted that radium is a naturally occurring element, and that the state requires water utilities to monitor for radium. If elevated levels are found, utilities are required to monitor more often, and if levels don’t naturally subside, a utility may be required to install a treatment system, he said.

Operators of public water systems are required by law to ensure that water meets the EPA’s standard for radioactivity. Owners of private wells are responsible for arranging their own testing and treatment; DEP recommends that those homeowners use a DEP-certified laboratory for testing, and to submit samples within 48 hours of collection.

Homeowners can reduce any elevated radioactivity in their water by connecting to a municipal system if it’s available, or by installing a treatment system at the point of entry into their homes, or at the point of use, such as a kitchen sink, the DEP said in an advisory.

Private well owners who draw their water from South Jersey’s Kirkwood Cohansey aquifer should have their water tested for radioactivity because it has been found at elevated levels in some places, the DEP said. More information is available in this DEP guide.

New Jersey American Water, one of the state’s biggest utilities, said it had identified “some inconsistencies” between the EWG report and its own information but said it could not be more specific without seeing EWG’s underlying data.