I-Team: Draft of federal report finds radiation widespread in Houston water

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by Mark Greenblatt / 11 News I-Team Chief Investigative Reporter

khou.com

Posted on December 21, 2010 at 2:05 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 10:26 AM

HOUSTON—A draft of a soon-to-be-released federal report shows radiation in Houston’s drinking water is much more widespread than city leaders previously disclosed to the public. 

KHOU-TV has learned that the United States Geological Survey, which is a part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, met with Houston officials in September to present the preliminary findings of a report they do not plan to publicly release until next month.

Those findings, as summarized in a chart created by the USGS and presented to Houston officials, reveal radiation is present in some amount in nearly every Houston groundwater well the USGS tested this spring. That finding is similar to a recently released chapter of the ongoing USGS study, which was based on 28 tests the USGS performed in 2007 and 2008. The USGS concluded, after examining those older tests, that "radioactivity generally was detectable in the water samples."

The older tests the USGS performed did not find water wells that tested above the federal legal limit for a particularly dangerous form of radioactivity known as alpha radiation. However, the newer tests from this spring described in that preview chart that KHOU-TV obtained, reveal as many as 10 separate water wells had so much alpha radiation present in their water they would test above a dotted line that the USGS used to represent the federal legal limit. 

KHOU obtained the chart and first learned of the USGS study only after filing a public information request that required city officials to turn over any communication or reports they have had with outside agencies regarding radiation in the city’s water supply.

The draft report is coming to light on the heels of an ongoing KHOU-TV investigation, which has revealed Houston is one of the only major cities in Texas with alpha radiation in its water supplies. Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Beaumont, Austin and others all have drinking water free of alpha radiation. Nationally, Milwaukee, Jacksonville, Detroit and a majority of major American cities do not have alpha radiation present in any detectable amount. Those water systems depend mostly on surface water sources like rivers and lakes, or on groundwater sources that are not contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive contaminants. 

Houston, which continues to depend in part on groundwater for 20 percent of its water, obtains water from wells that drill into underground aquifers surrounded by naturally occurring forms of uranium, radium and other radioactive contaminants. Those contaminants are not removed by current Houston water-treatment techniques, as the city has declined to install filters that could remove the radiation.

Houston officials previously took action at one radioactive well, in the Chasewood neighborhood of Houston, doing so only after KHOU began asking questions about state tests that found Chasewood wells repeatedly in violation of legal limits for alpha radiation. 

The preview of the new federal report by USGS, which does not include any tests of the Chasewood wells, reveals Houston’s problems with radioactivity in its drinking water extend far beyond the Chasewood region. The USGS preview chart shows wells serving the southwest region of the city, District 123, around Sims Bayou, in the Park Ten area, Spring Branch, Katy Addicks and Jersey Village all having so much radiation they tested above a dotted line USGS inserted to represent the federal legal limit. Some of those areas have more than one water well which is shown to test at or above the federal legal limit for alpha radiation.

"Let me translate that report in my view: Houston has a problem with its water supply," said City Council Member C.O. "Brad" Bradford, who is also the former chief of police in Houston.

"There’s radiation in Houston’s water supplies across the Houston area that’s completely unacceptable. It is dangerous," he said.

Bradford said he believes city leaders have not done enough to warn residents about the increased cancer risks alpha radiation immediately poses in their drinking water. He said city residents deserve much better after just "suffering" a 40-percent hike in their water rates. 

Bradford believes city officials have refused to acknowledge, so far, what he characterized as real health risks to large amounts of residents in Houston. He points to statements made by city officials this November, two months after city leaders were briefed on the upcoming USGS findings.

One statement he questioned was made by the city’s public works director, Daniel Krueger, at a public meeting in November where concerned residents in the Chasewood neighborhood were demanding answers from top city leaders. Krueger repeatedly attempted to calm nerves by telling concerned citizens that Houston’s water supply meets all federal and state water quality standards. Krueger added, "In the case of Houston, our citizens have been and continue to be safe."  

Mayor Annise Parker echoed the statement of her appointee, but added: "The federal government, the EPA says the water is safe to drink." 

Bradford says Houston may meet certain federal "legal" standards, but says city officials are wrong to say the federal government has said Houston’s water is "safe." 

"The EPA doesn’t say that. I’ve read the EPA guidelines. Any level of radiation is bad, it’s not good," he said. 

A KHOU review of EPA regulations reveals the EPA does, in fact, say in the United States federal register that "it is assumed that any exposure to radiation may be harmful (or may increase the risk of cancer)."

Further, the EPA also says in the federal register that, "For alpha particles, it has been shown experimentally that a single alpha passing through a cell is sufficient to induce a mutational event."

Multiple toxicologists and radiation experts KHOU spoke with agree with the EPA and Bradford, that any amount of radiation exposure in drinking water increases your risk for cancer.

"I want to make sure you understand, it’s all bad," Bradford said, while suggesting city leaders stop saying anything different that might leave Houstonians with a false sense of security.  

KHOU asked the Department of Public Works if it had shut off any of the 10 wells the USGS preview report shows testing above even the legal limits. Early Monday evening, public works spokesperson Alvin Wright confirmed the city had not shut down any one of the 10 wells, nor had it taken any other action at them. All 10, in fact, remain available for use when needed, which mostly occurs during high-water demand periods such as mornings when people are showering or during summer months when others water their lawn.  

A KHOU examination of other public records the city released reveals many of those wells are used extensively, pumping out millions of gallons of radioactive water.

Wright released a statement pointing out that the USGS only tested Houston’s "untreated" water, before it is purified and sent into the distribution system.  

However, Wright previously disclosed to KHOU that the city’s purification process does not get radiation out. He also confirmed Houston has not installed filters that could get the radiation almost entirely out – filters that are readily available today—at any water well in the city.

"That’s alarming news to me," said Dr. Louie Galloway, who lives in Spring Branch, where two wells tested by the USGS were shown to have alpha radiation above the legal limit.

"I’ve already had prostate cancer since living in Spring Branch. I don’t know it came from the alpha contamination, I don’t know that it didn’t," Galloway said.

The longtime Spring Branch resident said he is losing faith in city leaders to protect his family and has stopped drinking Houston tap water as a result.  

However, before you think he’s overreacting, you might want to know what he does for a living.

KHOU: "You’re a nuclear physicist."

GALLOWAY:  "Oh yes."

In fact, Galloway just retired this summer after teaching at the University of St. Thomas for 27 years. He says his son began to make fun of him for drinking "alpha water" and "alpha ice" after KHOU’s initial reports began to air. Consequently, Galloway decided to install a special reverse osmosis water filter in his home. The filters are among the only consumer solutions that will filter out radiation, and can be obtained at any major hardware store or online beginning around $130.  

KHOU: "But these are tough economic times."

GALLOWAY: "I know, so is cancer." 

Houston officials say they have the problem in hand, saying they "mix" the radioactive ground water in Spring Branch and other hot spots with radiation free water the city obtains from surface sources. The mix, they say, reduces your radiation exposure below legal limits. 

Galloway says he performed a calculation which shows why that’s not good enough. He says even if the city reduces the alpha radiation to a third of what federal limits will allow legally, "You’re exposing your internal organs to 500 alpha particles, for every hour it’s in your body."

Bradford said the city’s solution should, from a moral perspective, spur them to still issue a warning to Houston residents about their increased cancer risks that remain in place because the city has not taken action.

"Tell the citizens of Houston the water we’re supplying you is ‘mixed’ with radiation," he suggested. "How does that sound?"

Nuclear physicist Galloway said that kind of solution does not leave as good of a taste in his mouth as his newly filtered reverse osmosis water. 

"The coffee tastes better and the tea tastes better. And the ice cubes are clearer."

 

 

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