HOUSTON -- Hundreds of water providers around the Gulf Coast region are providing their customers with drinking water that contains radioactive contaminants that raise health risks, according to state lab results and public health scientists.
The revelations came to light during a four-month KHOU-TV investigation, which examined thousands of state laboratory tests from water providers across Texas. The data, provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), ranged from 2004 to the present.
The radiation was first discovered as a part of required testing, under federal regulations, of all drinking water provided by community water systems in America.
Click here to check radiation levels in your water system.
In Texas, the Department of State Health Services provides an independent lab to test the water for potential contaminants of all kinds and forward results to both the water system and TCEQ. Much to the surprise of many people, hundreds of water companies along the Gulf Coast and all across Texas pump water with some amount of radiation inside.
One particular type of radiation that popped up again and again in water provided by utilities all across Texas, was something called alpha radiation, which public health scientists say can be particularly problematic when consumed.
“The alpha particle -- this is the 800-pound gorilla of radioactive particles,” said Dr. David Ozonoff, an environmental health professor and chair emeritus of the Boston University School of Public Health.
Ozonoff obtained a medical degree from the Cornell University School of Medicine and serves on the Massachusetts Cancer Advisory Committee.
He said drinking water with any amount of alpha particles, even when consumed in amounts below federal legal limits, raises your risk to develop health problems or, in rare cases, cancer. Examples of alpha particles found in the Gulf Coast region are those from uranium, radium and other minerals.
Ozonoff describes alpha particles as a type of radiation that would not typically harm you unless inhaled or ingested. He warns, once you take it inside your body, your health risks immediately begin to rise.
“It can't penetrate very far, but when it hits something it does a ferocious amount of damage,” he said. “If I were to drink it, then many parts of your body are within knife-wielding distance of an alpha particle.”
Ozonoff said the danger in drinking alpha particles is that you bring them inside your body and right up against sensitive organs, where the alpha particles can damage DNA and create a possible mutation in your cells. He says the more you drink, the more you raise your risk for cancer.
In fact, even the EPA says "a single 'wild’ cell can give rise to a cancer,” and that “a single alpha passing through a cell is sufficient to induce a mutational event.”
The EPA made the disclosure in the federal register as part of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations 2000 final rule that regulates all forms of radioactive elements in drinking water.
The “zero-threshold” allowance for radionuclides, from a health-based standard, is one reason why the EPA set the drinking water federal health goal, called the MCLG (Maximum Contaminant Limit Goal), at zero for all forms of ionizing radiation. Other potential contaminants in drinking water such as copper, selenium, barium, chlorine residuals, trihalomethanes, and many others that are not radioactive elements, all have goals set above zero.
The EPA notes there are some who disagree with its conclusion that any amount of radiation has the ability to cause a mutation. However, it states in the federal register that EPA “believes its position is based on weight of evidence and support from national and international groups of experts interested in radiation protection.”
Many of America’s largest water systems attain the public health goal with no detectable amounts of radiation in their water supplies. Many, but not all of these water systems, depend on surface drinking water sources, like rivers, lakes and streams, to supply their communities. Most radioactive alpha particles end up in drinking water only after it is pumped up from groundwater wells in regions of the country with natural uranium, radium or other radioactive deposits underground. In some cases, that are less common, radioactive elements do end up in surface water.
However, the EPA sets a “legal” limit for these contaminants above zero, which it calls the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level). The government cannot force a water system to take action to clean up radioactive drinking water until the system exceeds that legal limit. However, as it pertains to radioactive materials in particular, Ozonoff says you are still put at risk if they are present, even in quantities below that legal limit.
“All you need is one cell to go bad,” he said, to initiate the beginning stages of a cancerous event.
While potential mutations could take place at any time when radionuclides are consumed, the risks are relatively small. For instance, the EPA estimates “a radiogenic cancer risk of slightly less than one in 10,000” for communities that consume drinking water over a lifetime with enough alpha radiation from uranium to reach the MCL of 30 micrograms. The odds have been calculated to be even lower for alpha derived from other isotopes.
However, Ozonoff warns those risk levels are calculated in isolation from your other daily exposure to all types of carcinogens, with which we regularly come into contact. For example, he points out that water can also have other radioactive elements, and that the risk from those compounds with whatever cancer risk you are already receiving from alpha.
While nearly every major city in Texas has no detectable amounts of radiation in their purified water, according to United States Geological Survey officials, the Houston region and surrounding counties are prone to having natural uranium deposits that are near the aquifers that provide well water.
Lab reports reveal radiation in Harris County Municipal Utility District #105’s (MUD #105) water dates as far back as the early 1980s. MUD #105, a suburban water provider outside the city limits of Houston, did not receive a formal “legal” violation notice until it exceeded federal limits in 2008 and 2009.
But MUD #105 did disclose those violations to residents in two annual water-quality reports. However, neighborhood resident Kareen Tolbert thinks both the MUD and regulators had a moral obligation to do more.
"Screw the fine print,” Tolbert said. “Something this serious, it should be mandatory that everybody in this district knows what's going on.”
Attorney Taylor Goodall, who represents the board of directors for MUD 105, says the MUD also began mailing out more detailed warning notices in December of 2009. The notices contained language in capital letters saying “THIS IS NOT AN EMERGENCY” and also telling residents “you do not need to use an alternative water supply.”
“I don't think there's a reason to panic,” Goodall said.
KHOU: “Do you think the ‘Average Joe’ knows there's radiation in the water?”
GOODALL: “Well I can't speak for the ‘Average Joe,’ but I know that we sent out mailers.”
Goodall says as soon as the MUD’s board was notified of a legal violation, it also began to take steps to limit the flow of water from the most radioactive water well that the utility owns, which he says still remains in limited service during high-demand times.
But residents like Felicia Byford and Tolbert, who both have young children, believe the MUD should have reduced the flow of that well long ago.
State tests show the well has always tested above the federal health goal for radioactive alpha and has consistently come close to exceeding the “legal” limit for alpha, and in more recent years, tested in similar levels for radioactive radium, too.
KHOU: “Scientists say that this amount of radiation over a number of years, leads to an increased risk of cancer in your community. Does that concern you?”
GOODALL: “Any issue of public health concerns me. But what I’m saying is…”
KHOU: “You’re saying there is no reason to panic.” (Referring to flier sent out to community residents.)
GOODALL: “There isn’t a reason to panic. I am firm in my belief that there isn’t a reason to panic.”
Byford, however, disagrees. She’s an embalmer by profession and says she sees every day what can happen to someone who comes down with cancer, and wants to lower her exposure to anything that might raise the risks to her own family.
“You come here and you drink this water,” she said. “Then you tell me how you feel in two years.”
But KHOU found out that MUD 105 is not alone. In fact, there are water providers all over Harris County that show alpha particles, according to state testing. Such is the case with Municipal Utility District 238, Municipal Utility District 23, the City of Katy and hundreds of other small water systems that depend mostly -- or entirely -- on groundwater.
One of those local water systems, known as the Suburban Mobile Home Park 2, violated federal legal limits for alpha radiation in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Yet, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality allowed the drinking water to continue to flow to residents there for years after that, despite consistently testing with some of the highest readings for alpha-particle activity and uranium in Texas.
For instance, in all four tests performed in the last two quarters of 2009 and the first two quarters of 2010, the Suburban Mobile Home Park 2 had so much radium in its water it surpassed the federal “legal” limit for combined radium by 200 percent.
In the water system’s last six tests for alpha, performed in 2009 and 2010, it more than doubled the legal limit for that type of radiation as well. The federal legal limit is set at 15 picocuries (a measurement for radiation), and the water system measured between 33 and 43 picocuries in all six of its most recent tests. In addition, the Suburban Mobile Home Park 2 exceeded the federal legal limit for uranium in eight of its last 10 tests.
The only two test results that did not exceed the legal limit for uranium include one where the result equaled the legal limit and another where it fell one microgram below the legal limit.
All of these recent readings came after the TCEQ put the Suburban Mobile Home Park on a “compliance agreement” dated July 27, 2007. The TCEQ, the agency charged with enforcing federal safe-water drinking regulations in Texas, has continued to allow the radioactive water to flow.
When KHOU asked TCEQ why it had not taken any further enforcement action in all this time, TCEQ spokesperson Terry Clawson released a statement from the agency saying:
“The TCEQ placed the Suburban Mobile Home Park on a Compliance Agreement which began on July 23, 2007 and ended on July 23, 2010. The TCEQ is awaiting monitoring results to evaluate the system’s compliance performance status to determine further action.”
KHOU also obtained a database of every enforcement action TCEQ has taken over the last six years and noted no actions had been taken against Harris County MUD #105. However, seven days after TCEQ released its database of enforcement actions to KHOU, the agency then entered into a compliance agreement with MUD 105, but has not fined the utility.