Radioactive water pollutants, or what is known as radionuclides, are unwanted radioactive materials that penetrate water sources. The natural radiation found in drinking water includes radium, uranium, and radon, which are often found in areas of granitic rocks, in addition to other materials such as potassium. Fission products from anthropogenic nuclear reactions are of concern today, especially radioactive cesium and iodine. Natural radioactive substances are found in the earth’s crust, food, sunlight,and even our DNA and are naturally occurring.
These radioactive substances are produced by waste from the coal industry (mining and combustion), and the oil industry and gas (production), metallurgical, smelting and fertilizer (phosphate) industry, construction and recycling industry. Radioactive material may also be derived from anthropogenic sources, such as waste from nuclear power plants and certain medical facilities. Poorly released or stored radioactive particles may seep into groundwater or bind to dust particles in the air. These particles can then travel a distance before settling into surface drinking water sources, such as rivers, lakes, and creeks that provide drinking water to the community.
There are three main types of ionizing radiation with differing penetration and size levels, alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma particles. Alpha particles do not penetrate human skin; however, they are dangerous if ingested or inhaled. Beta particles can enter the upper layer of the skin and are more dangerous when ingested or inhaled. Gamma rays can easily enter multiple layers of human tissue and kill living cells. It is known that long-term or short-term exposure to high radiation doses results in cancer such as lung, skin, bones, liver, kidneys, stomach, and thyroid cancer.
Radioactive materials that emit alpha particles are found in rocks and soil and can enter groundwater. Alpha particles can be swallowed and are typically inhaled as radon, a colorless, odorless gas that causes lung cancer. Beta emitters are of serious concern and have an even stronger impact than alpha emitters. It can be found in surface waters around nuclear power plants as well as in certain industries and medical installations. When such sites dispose of their radioactive waste, they can sometimes seep into the soil where they can reach groundwater and then into the water supply.
A particular example of a beta emitter is lead-210, a radioactive form of metal that disintegrated from uranium-238. It is commonly found in a fertilizer containing high phosphate content, it is known to be a component of cancer-causing cigarettes. Gamma rays have been found in medicine, radioactive tracers, cancer treatment, and sterilization of materials. They are also produced by events like supernova explosions (when massive stars are destroyed), and the decay of radioactive materials into space. Gamma radiation exposure may be caused by background radiation or the natural decomposition of radioactive particles into the environment. Those working in nuclear-related industries are usually given a slightly high level of exposure.
To protect yourself and your family against radiation exposure, you must first understand your water sources. Second, make sure that your public water is tested and treated by EPA standards. Third, check your municipality’s annual report to see what you can expect from natural and man-made radioactive pollutants in your area. If you own a house on your well, seriously consider getting your water tested for potential radiation contamination. You can also consider a water filter for natural or potentially atypical radiology levels in your area.