What Is Radium?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes radium as a naturally occurring radioactive metal. It is an isotope created when uranium and thorium decay. “In the natural environment, radium is found at low levels in soil, water, rocks, coal, plants, and food.”(2)

The EPA explains that radium is unstable, which leads to a decay process until it forms a stable, decay product that is not nonradioactive.(3) When radium decays, it forms radon gas. The EPA adds, “The most common isotopes of radium are Ra-226 and Ra-228… . All isotopes of radium are radioactive.”(4)

Radium Can Affect Your Health

Over time, radium can do serious harm to the human body, because radium is a known carcinogen. That means it causes cancer.

Long-term exposure to high levels of radium can cause:(5) (6) (7)

  • Bone cancer.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Lymphoma.
  • Hematopoietic (blood-formation) diseases, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia.
  • Lung cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “Scientists estimate that 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year are related to radon.”(8)

Avenues of Exposure to Radium

Because radium occurs naturally, everyone has some exposure. But exposure can be increased by human activities such as industry.

Avenues of exposure include:

  • Living in areas with elevated levels of radium.
  • Drinking water with high levels of natural radium.
  • Breathing air from burning fuels or coal.
  • Inhalation of radon gas.
  • Ingestion.
  • Working in mines.
  • Working in plants that process ores.
  • Contact with waste from ore, radium dial facilities, or radium dials.(9)

Water suppliers near industries that conduct business processes involving coal or fuel burning need to pay close attention to contaminant levels in their surrounding air, soil, and water.

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that radiation exposure can be internal or external. Inhalation, ingestion, injection, or wounds result in internal exposure to radionuclides. External exposure results from contact of radioactive material with the skin.(10)

Radiation Sickness

The Mayo Clinic indicates, “The severity of signs and symptoms of radiation sickness depends on how much radiation you’ve absorbed.” (11) It goes on to say, “How much you absorb depends on the strength of the radiated energy, the time of your exposures, and the distance between you and the source of radiation.”(12)

The first signs of radiation sickness are:(13)

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.

The appearance of more symptoms of radiation sickness may take hours, even days.

Additional symptoms after exposure include:(14)

  • Bloody vomit and stools (internal bleeding).
  • Diarrhea.
  • Disorientation.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Hair loss.
  • Headache.
  • Infections.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Weakness.

When radium exposure occurs, it affects whole communities because the contamination often originates from the same source and impacts the surrounding air, soil, and water. One notable example of radium’s widespread impact was found in Texas, according the EWG.

Texas Public Water Systems Jeopardized

While radium contaminated water was problematic throughout the state of Texas, results from EWG’s analysis were so egregious in Brady, Texas, that CBS News reported radium contamination in water there was nine times higher than it should be.(15)

Brady, Texas, is a community of 5,500 residents. According to CBS News, Mayor Tony Groves explained that “the city faces a tough problem: how to get enough state grant funding to build a new water treatment plant.”(16) Groves stated, “The water treatment plant is going to cost in excess of $20 million.”(17)

CBS reports EWG criticized the EPA and the former head of the Texas commission on environmental quality, Kathleen Hartnett White. Criticism of the EPA stems from the fact that the EPA should have established a database to inform the public of water contamination but had not. EWG also claims White “deliberately falsified data” on public water system radiation levels.(18)

Who Should Pay For Cleanup?

Corporate polluters should pay for the damage their negligent business practices inflict upon surrounding communities and the environment.

Businesses with plants or refineries that burn fuels or coal are among the leading offenders. Water suppliers and communities all across the United States have been successfully holding these giant corporate offenders accountable for the harm they do.

Successful litigation requires a team of environmental attorneys to represent clients’ interests. Weitz & Luxenberg has successfully litigated environmental pollution cases and currently represents clients nationwide.

Have you been exposed to radium as a result of nearby industrial operations? Contact us now for a free evaluation.

Get a Free Case Review

We have won billions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for our clients. Our wins for our clients include a $423-million methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) settlement for the contamination of 153 public water systems.

Our attorneys have handled cases from petroleum spills in the Gulf of Mexico to gas leaks in California and water contamination in New York and New Hampshire.

You get a team with years of knowledge and experience in going up against large corporations legally, which contributes to our recognized success in this area.

Awareness of Risk Levels

The EWG has built its own database to help communities become aware of their risks for high levels of radium in drinking water supplies. To check your community’s risks, visit the EWG interactive map. The database search utilizes public zip codes.(19) (20)

Keep in mind that water suppliers and the communities they serve may be faced with bearing the costs for cleanup of contaminated water supplies, air, or soil. Those costs can be staggering. Communities should make the companies responsible for the contamination pay for the cleanup.

Radium Regulations

The Safe Drinking Water Act authorized the EPA to determine levels at which contaminants in drinking water have no adverse health effects. These nonenforceable levels represent health goals called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG). The resulting enforceable regulations known as maximum contaminant levels (MCL) are based on MCLG. The MCL is set as close to the MCLG as possible.(21)

The EPA has established the MCL for radionuclides as radium 226 and 228 (combined) has an MCL of 5 pCi/L.(22)

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulatory authority over radium that has been “processed, or concentrated, for use in commercial, medical or research activities.”(23) Get more information regarding NRC’s regulations.(24)

The Department of Transportation regulates shipment processes for transport of radioactive materials.(25)

Water Treatment Processes

To ensure levels of radionuclides in drinking water meet federal standards, water suppliers use a number of processes to remove or dilute the amount of the contaminant in the water they supply to their customers.

Among these processes are:

  • Alum Treatment — Aluminum sulfate or “alum” is added to water to create a gel that bonds to the radionuclides and then collects at the bottom of treatment tanks.
  • Lime Softening — Similar to alum treatment, but calcium hydroxide is used instead. This raises the pH of the water, making calcium and magnesium settle out and form sludge.
  • Ion-Exchange ― Beads replace calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions. These beads can be reused a number of times.
  • Reverse Osmosis ― Water is forced through a membrane with small pores. Large molecules of water cannot penetrate the pores, so they are separated out and collected. This creates “reject water” and “spent membranes”.(26)

Just as with other contaminants, the EPA requires water suppliers to test their systems for radium contamination at entry points to the distribution system.(27)

Removal of Radionuclides From Drinking Water

Communities and water suppliers need to consider a number of issues when deciding how to best remove radionuclides from drinking water.

The following are some issues:

  • Available sources.
  • Blending source waters.
  • Connecting to nearby systems.
  • Optimizing existing treatment.(28)

Each option needs to be evaluated for compliance with federal statutes, feasibility, and cost effectiveness.

Waste Residuals Treatment Options

When elevated levels of waste residuals are present in water systems, there are treatment options available depending upon the type of waste.

Liquid Waste Disposal

Liquid waste can be disposed of in several ways:

  • Direct discharge.
  • Discharge to a publicly owned treatment works (POTW).
  • Recycle.
  • Underground injection.(29)

Specific types of liquid waste that may be disposed of using the above options include:

  • Acid neutralization water.
  • Backwash water.
  • Brine.
  • Concentrate.
  • Rinse water.(30)

Solid Waste Disposal Options

There are three types of solid waste: sludge, spent media, and spent membranes.

These forms of solid waste may be disposed of as:

  • Sludge: discharge to POTW, underground injection, or landfill.
  • Spent media: landfill only.
  • Spent membranes: landfill only.(31)