No, we’re not asking if your water is turning you into a monster...radioactivity in water is a real threat.
Radioactivity is not scary in the way that movies and popular culture depict. Sadly, it is much stealthier–it can cause irreparable damage to your body that stays hidden for years, or even across generations.
We are exposed to natural radiation in our daily lives (an example being bananas!). Radioactive particles, or radionuclides, are a part of the natural world–they exist in plants and animals usually as potassium-40 or radium-226. However, increased exposures to radiation occurs in our water or air when nuclear power plants, mining operations, or laboratories release radioactive materials into the environment.
Tap Score has written this guide to help you understand what radiation really is, what the associated risks are, and what types of radioactive elements are common in drinking water, and how they should be treated.
Getting the Terms Right: What Are Radioactive Particles?
Radiation refers to any process that emits energy in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles, such as light or sound. When we talk about radioactive particles, we are specifically referring to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is radiation that causes an atom or molecule to lose electrons and become charged–this charged molecule is called an ion.
Radioactivity is “the act of emitting radiation spontaneously”. An atom can be radioactive when it is unstable and wants to dissipate some of its energy to reach a more stable form.
The different “forms” of stable or unstable radioactive elements are called isotopes. We distinguish these radioactive isotopes by their mass, which is attached to the end of the element name, like Uranium-238.
Radioactive Particles in Water are Alpha or Beta
Radioactive particles are present in rocks and soil, which usually serve as the path to enter groundwater. The two types of radioactive particles present in water are alpha and beta particles–which are present in different sizes and element types.
Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons. Common examples in water are radium-226, radon-222, uranium-238, polonium-210, lead-206. While alpha particles cannot penetrate skin from the outside, they are active in the body and can cause damage if consumed.
Beta particles are radioactive particles made up of one electron. Common examples in water are strontium-90, potassium-40. Beta particles can penetrate the top layer of skin and cause burns. Beta particles likely cause more damage inside the body than alpha particles–they have more energy and can therefore travel farther into body tissue than alpha particles can.
Radioactive Particles in Water
We are concerned about naturally occurring radiation and additional radioactive particles that enter water from rock formations near mining sites, nuclear power plants, or laboratories. Radon, in particular, occurs in gaseous form in soils and can dissolve into groundwater or enter homes as a gas through the basement. Exposures to radon in both air and water are seriously concerning–here, we focus on exposure through drinking water.
Prevalence of Radioactive Particles: Private Wells at Higher Risk
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for radionuclides in city treated drinking water, but if you are a well water user you are at a much higher risk for radioactive contamination. In a study conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on radioactive particles in well water, the most abundant element above the EPA health threshold was radon, appearing in 65% of wells. Uranium was present in only 4% of the wells– which makes sense because radon is produced as uranium decays.
Signs that You Have Radioactive Particles in Your Water
Unfortunately, there are no obvious signs of radioactive particles. The only way to identify radon and uranium in your water is through testing. As a company that tests water, we’ve made this pretty easy–our essential test and advanced well water tests include uranium testing, we offer a specific test for radon, and we’ve developed a full radiation test that measures Gross Alpha and Gross Beta particles.
How do radioactive elements in water affect my health?
Unfortunately, the effects from radioactive particles in water can cause cancer and even be fatal. While our skin can protect us against alpha particles in the environment, exposure to radiation through water is particularly dangerous because radioactive elements damage tissues and organs.
Radioactive particles cause damage by breaking chemical bonds essential to our body’s functioning. Changing bonds in a molecule drastically alters its ability to function. Radioactive particles can cause cells in our body to die or slow down their reproduction. If a group of cells crucial to bodily function dies, the effects can be fatal.
After the bonds of normal cells in the body are broken, they release electrons. This can create a chain reaction that can eventually impact DNA molecules. Mutations are consequent to DNA damage, which lead to cancer. And, if germ (sex) cells are mutated, the cancer can be transmitted to children long after the initial exposure. The results of a study done in Iowa show that towns with radium-226 present in their water supply had higher rates of lung, bladder, and breast cancer.
How to protect yourself from Radioactive Particles in Water
There are two primary treatment options for radioactive particles in water–carbon filters and ion exchange:
- Carbon filters are one option for removing radium and strontium from drinking water. However, if radon is also present the filter must be changed very frequently–carbon can adsorb radon and lead to higher radiation exposure if radon is left to build up. As radon particles accumulate, they may fall out of the filter and back into the water stream.
- Ion exchange can be used to treat uranium. However, ion exchange creates backwash that contains high concentrations of radionuclides, which makes disposal a concern.
Ultimately, the type of treatment you choose depends on what type of radiation problem you have.
Test Before You Treat
Though these health effects may be frightening, they can be prevented or at least mitigated. Tap Score offers a Full Radiation Water Test to measures alpha and beta particles as well as a specific Radon Test to help you determine if you are at risk. We’ll also help you choose the right treatment options if you discover a problem. Picking the right filter matters to ensure you properly treat your water.
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