HOUSTON -- Americans remain largely in the dark about their true exposure to a number of radioactive contaminants that could be in their drinking water.
Surprisingly, it’s because of intentional decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal government office that is supposed to protect the nation from contaminated water.
“Where I think the EPA was wrong was in neglecting some natural radioactive materials altogether,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a physicist and former advisor to the EPA on radiation science.
Makhijani, a physicist and an engineer who has a PhD from Berkeley, has testified before Congress, and has served as an expert witness in Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceedings. He now runs the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
“I have told them that their drinking water notions are dating from science from 1959,” he said.
Cold War-era science
Makhijani said that the EPA’s regulatory approach dates back to the beginning of the Cold War, when above-ground nuclear testing was a common occurrence. For years, man-made radiation from nuclear fallout dominated the concerns of scientists.
Strontium 90 is one such man-made contaminant found in that fallout, and eventually across the world, as particles from the explosions drifted in the upper atmosphere.
However, KHOU has discovered the EPA never updated its regulations to make sure water utilities test for or measure certain naturally occurring types of radiation that may actually produce a far greater radiation dose, and thus a greater health risk, than Strontium 90.
For instance, lead 210, which is not the form of lead commonly found in pencils and other industrial uses, is a common byproduct of radon gas and is in itself radioactive. However the EPA does not regulate the element, effectively ignoring the threat from the very real possibility of it contaminating your water.
In a written statement to KHOU, agency officials said they do not regulate naturally occurring radioactive lead 210, “since the rule covers man-made radionuclides only.”
However, lead 210 is a prime example which shows how naturally occurring radiation can harm the public more than certain man-made types, Makhijani said. By his calculation, naturally occurring lead 210 produces nearly seven times the radiation dose to your bones as Strontium 90, the man-made form of radioactive contaminant the EPA does regulate. Both radioactive elements have a tendency to “target” your bones and produce cancer and other health effects there.
Years ago in the 1990s, the EPA considered regulating radioactive lead 210, but eventually decided not to do so. When it finalized changes to its rules in 2000, the agency suggested it would, instead, simply monitor for the presence of the contaminant under another federal program. The EPA recently confirmed to KHOU-TV that no such monitoring ever took place.
Makhijani and many other scientists are concerned.
KHOU: "Shouldn’t I know about how much of that is in my drinking water?"
MAKHIJANI: "I think you should."
Intentionally underreporting “gross” radiation exposure
KHOU also discovered that politics and pressure from utilities can play a part in the EPA’s regulatory decisions about drinking water. In some instances, the agency’s solution for fixing a problem with high amounts of certain radioactive elements in water is to not look for the problem.
Take radium 224, which emits a form of radiation called alpha particles. In a Federal Register entry dated Dec. 7, 2000, the EPA stated in its final rulemaking on regulating radiation in drinking water that if water systems actually had to test for radium 224, “doing so could cause many systems to find themselves to be out of compliance with the (law).”
As a result, national rules for testing for alpha radiation do not include appropriate methods that would pick up radiation from radium 224.
Ironically, the EPA mandates that all states and water systems inform the public about their “gross” exposure to alpha radiation. However, because the energy for radium 224 is not included in that measurement, the “gross alpha” result that the public is told about by their water utilities isn’t truly a “gross” number at all.
The EPA said in that federal register notice from December of 2000 that “further action (on radium 224) may be proposed at a later date.” Now, more than 10 years later, no action has taken place.
In a separate statement to KHOU, the EPA defended this inaction by saying the agency currently regulates other types of radium with larger radiological risks. The agency said consumers can use those measurements of other types of radium as a warning sign that radium 224 might also be in their water.
“In most cases in which a system has high radium 224 levels, it will also have high radium 228 levels,” the agency said in a statement. “Treatment for radium does not differentiate between the isotopes.”
However, physicists like Makhijani say the “gross alpha” characterization is misleading to the public. He says physicists like him use the true “total” exposure to a type of radiation to calculate your actual risk level for coming down with cancer or other health problems. Without that true total, Makhijani said, you’re in the dark about your real risks.
KHOU: "Bottom line, you’re concerned for the safety of the nation’s drinking water?"
Dr. David Ozonoff, a current environmental health professor and chair emeritus of the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, agreed.
OZONOFF: "Right now, I don’t know those things because they’re not giving me the information."
KHOU: "What’s your reaction when I tell you one reason they’re intentionally not giving you some of the information because it would force some water systems to fall out of compliance?"
OZONOFF: "That’s not good enough. I have to say, my colleagues in public health are sometimes guilty of saying ‘we’re not going to tell people everything’ because it will panic them. Well, the first thing that makes me panic is when someone says, ‘I don’t want to panic you.’ I’m in favor of telling people everything so they can make their own decisions about it."
KHOU: "What happens if I don’t get that full disclosure?"
OZONOFF: "Well, then we’re operating in the dark."
How the EPA allows Uranium’s radiation to be “subtracted” away
But there is another reason that “gross alpha” radiation totals you are told about, in required annual water quality reports, are actually being underreported by the government and your utility.
For instance, while you’ve just learned about how some naturally occurring radioactive elements are simply never tested by the EPA to begin with, in other cases, the EPA actually allows utilities to subtract off certain types of radiation labs detect in tests of your drinking water.
“I’m alarmed,” said Brian Ruiz, a homeowner in Harris County who gets his water from the Municipal Utility District 238. “An array of emotions just came over me.”
Ruiz stumbled on to the “subtractions” allowed by the EPA after seeing our earlier reporting.
Each year, the local water company sent Ruiz the EPA-mandated “consumer confidence report” on the state of his water quality. For example, take the 2005 report, which showed that Ruiz’s “gross alpha” radiation exposure was an average of 14.5 picocuries per liter, just under the EPA legal limit of 15 picocuries.
But after our first broadcasts, Ruiz went to KHOU.com where we had posted all of the “raw” water radiation testing results the state performed on behalf of the EPA, from 2004 to 2010. There, Ruiz saw that for 2005 the Texas Department of State Health Services lab had actually discovered 36.30 picocuries per liter of “gross alpha particle activity” in his water, not the “14.5” reported to him.
Ruiz was livid.
“I've been lied to,” Ruiz said. “I became outraged, and I was sickened with what I saw.”
But again, the reduction in radiation readings was all legally acceptable under EPA’s rules, which also direct that utilities call the final reading “gross alpha” in reports to consumers. That’s because the environmental agency instructs utilities to subtract out any alpha radiation that came from uranium before they report your “gross alpha” radiation exposure.
Ironically, the dictionary definition of the term “gross” is listed as “without deductions.”
Many health scientists we spoke to were surprised that the EPA does not regulate naturally occurring uranium as a radioactive element to begin with. A few years ago, the agency began regulating uranium as a poisonous metal, as it does with other metals like mercury or arsenic. Uranium, which has high kidney toxicity, can harm you in other ways besides increasing your risk of cancer. However, its radiological risk remains unregulated and uncounted by the EPA.
The EPA explained why it allows the subtraction of uranium’s radiation in a statement last fall to KHOU-TV:
“Gross alpha measurements do not include uranium because its radiotoxicity to the bone is insignificant.”
Makhijani was baffled.
“That, that’s not correct,” Makhijani said. “This thing, radiotoxicity to the bone is insignificant, is flat wrong. It is scientifically wrong.”
Makhijani said naturally occurring uranium, when ingested, actually produces nearly five times the radiation dose to the surface of the bone as that of Strontium 90, a man-made radioactive contaminant the EPA does regulate in the nation’s water supply. He used the EPA’s own reference documents to calculate uranium’s greater radiation dose compared to Strontium 90. KHOU had the calculations reviewed by several nuclear physicists, who all agreed that Makhijani was correct. One of those who reviewed Makhijani's calculations was Dr. Tom Cochran, senior scientist at the Nuclear Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Makhijani came to this conclusion:
“The idea that uranium is a kidney toxin, which it is, as a heavy metal and not radiotoxic to the bone, is silly,” he said.
(Note: it appears that until recently, the city of Houston’s past “gross alpha” scores actually INCLUDED alpha radiation from natural uranium without subtractions. However, the city recently began subtracting uranium in gross alpha, in response to concerns about alpha radiation in the Chasewood neighborhood of Houston. A recently created city website notes:
“In 2004, the level was 11.5 pCi/L; in 2006 it was 12.5 pCi/L. A level reading of 16.9 pCi/L was received in April 2010 from a sample taken by the Texas Department of State Health Services in October 2009…These wells have now been deactivated and will not be used again.”
In the readings the city references above, city officials are taking part in the allowed subtraction of uranium. KHOU asked city officials for comment last week on what appears to be a new practice. They have yet to respond.)
“Rounding” radiation scores down allowed by EPA
In some cases, even where the EPA does regulate or test for radiation, agency rules help utilities avoid legal violations, which would force them to warn consumers about the threats in their water by allowing companies to “round down” radiation scores, even if the scores themselves exceed the actual federal legal limit for radiation.
For instance, state labs at the Texas Department of State Health Services found that Harris County Municipal Utility District 105 tested at 5.4 pCi/L for combined radium in 2008, which is above the legal limit of “5” pCi/L. However, the utility never received a violation notice from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which implements the EPA’s rules in Texas. When they avoided the violation, the utility also avoided having to tell about their increased risks, because federal and state rules allowed the utility to “round down” its test result.
The TCEQ, explained why no legal violation was issued, by explaining their practice of rounding radiation scores down:
“Rounding must be taken into account. For example: a running annual average of 5.4 pCi/L combined radium rounds down to 5 pCi/L, and is within compliance."
KHOU asked the EPA about what seemed to be an inconsistent policy of allowing utilities to round some radiation scores down to the nearest whole number, while sometimes allowing them to report fractions of a detected number to consumers.
The EPA defended the practice of allowing the rounding down of radiation scores in a statement to KHOU by saying:
“Because the (legal limit) is 5, not 5.0, rounding is acceptable.”
Other unregulated radioactive contaminants pose cancer risk
Another alpha radiation emitter that is often found where uranium or radium is present is radon. During the 1990s, the EPA came close to forcing utilities to test for radon in drinking water and implementing legal standards that protect against it. The EPA backed off the proposal after receiving intense pressure from utilities concerned about the financial impact such a regulation could have on them.
Today, the EPA does state on its website that radon in drinking water “is a serious public health threat.”
The agency cited a report by the National Academy of Sciences as the “most comprehensive accumulation of scientific data on the public health risks of radon in drinking water… This report goes on to refine the risks of radon in drinking water and confirms that there are drinking water related cancer deaths, primarily due to lung cancer.”
Yet, without regulation in place, any reports utilities receive of radon in drinking water do not have to be passed on to consumers. High readings do not have to be legally cleaned up, allowing the radiation to continue to flow.
“Once there is no standard, you don't have to measure it,” said Dr. Irina Cech, who retired this month after leading research since the 1980s for the University of Texas Health Science Center into radon in Texas water supplies.
Cech’s expertise has long been recognized by public health officials throughout Texas, and by the U.S. Congress, for which she advised a subcommittee on environmental investigations, which was part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“If you have water containing radon, your chances of dying of cancer are much increased,” Cech said.
Cech, and her colleagues at the University of Texas, found what she calls a disturbing amount of radon in local and some statewide water supplies. She said our region is situated above what geologists call “the uranium belt,” which means we are especially susceptible in certain areas of Texas to higher amounts of radiation getting into our groundwater.
“We told the city, and we told the state, we have a problem here with radioactive wells,” she said.
In fact, Cech found hot spots all over Harris County, but especially on the west and northwest sides.
Cech said those hot spots are likely caused because the particular water wells were drilled next to natural faults or salt domes, where Cech says some radioactive elements tend to congregate. Another problem is that the water wells are also drilled near thousands of man-made oil and gas wells littered throughout certain areas of Harris County, which help bring the radon gas up from underground deposits, she said.
Inside Houston city limits, Cech also found what she calls elevated readings of radon in drinking water, including some readings that were ten times the EPA’s proposed limit of 300 picocuries per liter. For instance, she found one water well in Houston’s Chasewood neighborhood that had tested above 3,000 pCi/L for radon, as far back as in 1987. The well was not removed from service until recently, after KHOU’s investigation discovered the well also had violated the regulated legal limit for alpha radiation, even with all of the subtractions the EPA allows. But despite Cech’s discovery, the water was not turned off until late 2010, 23 years later.
“Nothing was done,” Cech said. “It would be good if the City of Houston gets its act together.”
Cech says the inaction continued even after she published some of her findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and after she told local government representatives at meetings of regional geological experts about what the university researchers had found.
KHOU-TV has learned that the city of Houston quietly confirmed many of Cech’s findings when it partnered with the United States Geological Survey, a non-regulatory federal agency, to quietly test many of Houston’s remaining groundwater wells for radon. In September of 2010, the USGS reported back, warning Houston officials that:
“Concentrations of radon-222 from the water samples from the 28 wells were greater than the proposed unmitigated standard of 300 pCi/L (legal limit) in all but five samples.”
However, it appears the vast majority, if not all of the wells, the USGS tested for elevated radon levels remain online in Houston today, pumping water and radon gas to dozens of neighborhoods all across the city.
Cech warns, elevated radon levels in area water supplies even affect those residents who don’t drink city tap water. She says you’re likely to breathe the radon gas in after showering in water that contains it. The vapor mist, she says, contains radon which you can inhale directly into your lungs.
But Cech points out that because of the lack of federal regulation, city officials are not legally obligated to do anything about what she believes is a very real public health concern.
“Legally, they’re not required. Morally, yes,” she said.
EPA reverses course on uranium’s toxicity
In spite of multiple requests from KHOU over the past two months, the EPA declined to go on camera for this report. In a recent written statement the agency sent KHOU, the EPA said:
“Protecting the health of all Americans from contaminants that may occur in drinking water is a fundamental element of EPA's mission. EPA takes seriously the risks from radionuclides in drinking water, both natural and man-made, and our regulations are established using sound science and the law to best protect public health.”
As noted above in this article, the EPA had previously defended the “subtraction” of uranium from gross alpha readings by saying its radiotoxicity to the bone was “insignificant.”
After KHOU sent the EPA the detailed calculations done by Dr. Makhijani, the agency responded in a statement that seemed to reverse its previous claims, saying:
“EPA does not mean to imply that the radiological risk from uranium is unimportant.”
A spokesperson for the agency also told KHOU to say that “EPA is currently conducting a reassessment of the health risks resulting from exposure to uranium.”
The agency also said:
“Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA sets national standards for drinking water based on sound science to protect against health risks, considering available technology, and costs. EPA recognizes that any amount of radiation has the potential to increase risk of cancer, whether it is from man-made or natural sources. For this reason, the agency has set the public health goal for all radionuclides at zero, recognizing that there is no level of exposure considered to be safe.”
The “public health goal(s)” that the EPA refers to (above) are non-enforceable regulations and carry no penalties for exceeding them. Consumers are also not required to be informed when utilities exceed them.
In the case of many unregulated radionuclides like lead 210 and radon, utilities could literally have unusually large amounts of the contaminant in your water and there is nothing the government could do to force a cleanup.
When KHOU asked why EPA still allows uranium scores to be subtracted from “gross” alpha readings considering the real radiological risks it poses, the EPA said:
“As a first point, since the deduction of uranium from Gross Alpha is being questioned, we would like to emphasize that uranium is regulated individually with its own MCL, providing public health protection from this contaminant.”
(KHOU note: the MCL or limit that the EPA is referring to is not for radiation from uranium, but the presence of uranium as a poisonous metal.)
The agency went on to say:
“The interim rules for Alpha emitters and Beta & Photon emitters have been in place since 1976. When these rules were promulgated as final rules in 2000, the agency decided to retain the gross alpha terminology and avoid confusing public water systems that had been implementing the rules for nearly 30 years and are used to this terminology. When developing the rules, EPA accounted for these
deductions in its public health decisions, and despite the difference in
terminology, we believe the standards are protective.”
Dr. Cech believes the EPA should now shift its focus from being more concerned about misleading the American public rather than “confusing” the utilities.
"The point is -- they should worry about customers, and the people," she said.