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Changing radium standards for drinking water

In 1985 the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) told Morris, a city of 10,000 southwest of Joliet, that its drinking water contained more radium than federal standards allowed.

In 1986 the IEPA sentenced Morris to economic stagnation because of its radium-laden water, placing the city on a restricted list and telling Morris that it could not expand its water system.

In 1991 Morris completed and opened a new $710,000 facility to take radium out of the city's water.

Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has decided radium in drinking water is not as dangerous as once thought and has proposed to ease the standards, making the new Morris plant unnecessary.

Morris Mayor James R. Washbum is mad. He calls the facility a "useless monstrosity." Washbum says that the city built the plant because while on restricted status it could not expand the water system: "We're a growing city that suddenly could not build any more housing." Morris residents will be paying off the bonds that financed the new plant until the year 2005. With the new plant also comes a $40,000 annual operations cost.

Washbum said the most frustrating part of the whole misadventure is that the city had fought building the facility for years, telling the IEPA then that it was unnecessary. "Dr. Toohey [Argonne National Laboratory biophysicist Richard Toohey] got up at the Pollution Control Board meeting and said that if you smoked one cigarette in your entire life, if you had one x-ray or if you ate 12 tablespoons of peanut butter, you ran a greater risk of getting cancer than you did from drinking our water. He said you would have to drink two liters of our water a day for the next 12,000 years before you'd run a greater risk of cancer. But they insisted we do this," Washbum said.

For 15 years the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and its federal counterpart have been forcing communities to remove radium from their drinking water. Their stick was the limit on expansion of water systems and a requirement that customers be notified that radium could increase the risk of cancer. Over the last decade and a half, the IEPA found 113 Illinois communities with more radium in their public water supplies than the federal regulations allowed.

In many communities, reducing the radium content meant spending millions of dollars to build water treatment facilities or to find new water supplies. Unfortunately, all the alternatives were costly. Some communities, like Morris, spent the money.

On June 17, the dilemma of how to fix, or if to fix, radium-excessive water supplies was put on indefinite hold. That day the USEPA proposed relaxing the standard. Greg Helms, administrator of the USEPA's ground- and drinking-water office, said his agency changed its method of risk calculation and then recalculated the risk of radium. It determined that the old standard, 5 picocuries of radium per liter of water, was based on inaccurate information. Instead, the new calculations showed that up to 50 picocuries per liter would not pose any additional health threat Relaxing the standards also could save millions of dollars.


14/October 1991/Illinois Issues

The proposed standard is currently in the public comment phase. For 90 days, the proposal is printed in the Federal Register and the public is asked for comment. Helms said that after the 90-day period the comment is evaluated, and then the USEPA makes its final decision whether to relax the standard. The entire process could take 18 months, he said.

Radium-226 and radium-228 are two of the most common and dangerous forms of the radioactive element. The current standard, 5 picocuries of radium-226 or radium-228 per liter, was adopted in 1976. The proposed standard, of 20 picocuries of radium-226 and 30 picocuries of radium-228 per liter, could be adopted early next year.

Some scientists say the new standard should be adopted. Toohey, the Argonne National Laboratory biophysicist who testified against forcing Morris to build the new plant, has spent his life researching radium's effect on the body. He has testified before the Illinois Pollution Control Board numerous times, each time asking the board to grant variances to communities that exceed the radium standard. The variances allow municipalities to continue expanding their water system while researching and planning their solution to the radium problem. Toohey claims the change makes economic and health sense. New calculations show that radium is five or six times safer than the old standards indicate, he said. In fact, he believes the risk calculations used to set the old standard were "flat out wrong."

Other scientists say any relaxation is dangerous. Dr. Janice Kirsch, an oncologist in San Francisco, said the danger of radium lies in the alpha particles. The particles emitted as the radium decays are heavy enough so that they do not produce a great threat outside the body. Once internalized, by drinking or cooking with radium-laden water, the element continues to emit alpha particles. The alpha particles then bounce around in the body cells, causing damage and possibly causing cells to mutate and become cancerous. Once in the body, radium is 20 times more dangerous than x-rays, according to Kirsch, but the two are difficult to compare because they are different types of radiation. X-rays expose the body to gamma radiation. Still, she insisted that by relaxing the radium standard, the federal EPA is risking a huge jump in the number of radium-related cancer cases.

In 1986, the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety issued a report indicating the other great problem with radium: Once inside the body it mimics calcium. While the human body would normally deposit calcium in the bones, radium takes its place. As a result bones become brittle because they lack calcium, and the decaying radium can cause bone cancer. Radium deposited in the nasal passages, lungs and other airways emits radon gas, often leading to sinus or lung cancer. The report said the element is especially dangerous to pregnant women, infants from birth to age one and children ages 10 to 16 because of the growth spurts that normally occur at these times.

Among the unconvinced is Illinois Pollution Control Board member Jacob Dumelle, who says moving the standard is based on information that had nothing to do with public health. The bottom line, he said, was money. Dumelle said that the current standard is much more lenient than USEPA regulations for other known carcinogens. He said that pressure from local governments unable to afford radium-reduction facilities finally convinced the agency to consider the economic impact of the standard.

Dumelle said that he has fought issuing variances or relaxing the standard because it seemed to run against other concerns. "Everybody tells you to avoid radiation," he said. "So now, we're telling people a certain amount of radiation is okay?" Dumelle said the theory that there is a threshold below which radiation is not harmful has never been accepted. In fact, most people are deciding radium is more dangerous, not less dangerous. When combined with the other forms of radiation that people encounter every day radiation from things like microwaves and video display terminals it poses an even greater threat, he said.

While scientists argue about when radium becomes dangerous and whether substituting one pollutant for another makes any sense, Carolyn Rafsensperger, president of the Illinois Sierra Club, is concerned that the risk analysis is too narrow. She said the most egregious thing about the new standard is that it does not consider radium as part of the "web" of pollutants affecting people every day. Tests are done in a vacuum, she said, and people do not live in a vacuum. People may be exposed to many different cancer-causing elements in a day, and they need to be aware of the potential impact of the combination.

Nationally and internationally, the USEPA's proposed change has met with guarded and mixed reactions. Daryl Kimball, associate director for policy of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said his group, as a national organization of health professionals, is "concerned that all radiation standards be based on health, not arbitrary economic considerations." Adjusting the standard makes sense only if it is in the public health interest, he said. "It is irresponsible to adjust them without looking at all the potential health ramifications."

Even the USEPA admits its proposed standards are not shared worldwide. The World Health Organization, a branch of the United Nations concerned with public health, does not have a radium standard. Instead, it has a gross alpha standard that is the amount of alpha particles acceptable in a liter of water. Helms, of the USEPA, said the international organization calls water safe if it contains less than one-tenth of a beckerel of radium. A beckerel, the international measure of radiation in a liquid, is equal to 27 picocuries. The World Health Organization's standard then is about half, 2.7 picocuries, of the current American standard.

Although the Morris water is now radium free, it has other problems. "We used to have water that tasted good. Now, our water has three times as much sodium, and it is so soft it tastes awful," says Washbum. A water-softening plant uses minerals, most often sodium, to remove pollutants from the water. A second problem is that water coming out of a treatment plant is too pure. Pure, softened water is very corrosive and will pick up mineral deposits or rust in city water lines.

What do you get for $700,000, plus interest, and $40,000 a year in operating expenses? A water plant that produces bad tasting, radium-free water. One mad mayor. And a lot of unanswered questions.

Cindy Morgan is a reporter in the Marion bureau of the Southern Illinoisan.

October 1991/Illinois Issues/15

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