Radioactive contamination is creeping into drinking water around the U.S.
By Lynne Peeples, Ensia
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, along with a mix of other toxic chemicals and heavy metals, are known to have been released at the industrial site through various spills, leaks, the use of open-air burn pits and a partial nuclear meltdown.
Concerns across the country
All water contains some level of radiation; the amount and type can vary significantly. Production of nuclear weapons and energy from fissionable material is one potential source. Mining for uranium is another. Radioactive elements can be introduced into water via medical treatments, including radioactive iodine used to treat thyroid disorders. And it can be unearthed during oil and gas drilling, or any industrial activities that involve cracking into bedrock where radioactive elements naturally exist. What’s more, because of their natural presence, these elements can occasionally seep into aquifers even without being provoked.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a partner in 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 collected between 2010 and 2015, EWG focused on six radioactive contaminants, including radium, radon and uranium. They found that California has more residents affected by radiation in their drinking water than anywhere else in the U.S. Yet the state is far from alone. About 80% of Texans are served by water utilities reporting detectable levels of 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.
While ingesting radioactive elements through drinking contaminated water is not the only route of human exposure, it is a major risk pathway, says Daniel Hirsch, a retired 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.”