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Survey:More Radon Than Uranium



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More Radon Than Uranium

By Kaaren Valenta

A random sampling of 47 household wells in Newtown showed that only three had uranium levels slightly above the federal standard, but 45 percent showed high radon levels.

“We learned that there is no predictability about uranium levels in well water,” said Mark A.R. Cooper, director of the Newtown Health District. “We did random sampling in the five different kinds of bedrock under Newtown, in wells of different types, different ages, different depths, elevations, and yields, and learned that there is no way to predict where water will test over the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] standard of 30 picocuries per liter [30pCi/L].”

The results were discussed Thursday, August 2, in a meeting attended by Mr Cooper, health district environmental director Donna McCarthy, and Brian Toal, program director of the state health department toxic hazards assessment program.

The health district began gathering water samples from nearly 50 household wells last spring after an elevated level of 211 pCi/L was discovered at Middle Gate School and after the Marks family of Sweet Meadow Road learned that their water tested at more than 800 pCi/L. A treatment unit was being installed at Middle Gate School this summer to remove the uranium from the water.

Mr Cooper said the three household wells that tested above the EPA level were located far apart, in the northern, southern, and western parts of town. The wells showed radionuclide contamination levels of 177pCi/L, 80pCi/L and 45pCi/L.

“You might expect to find that other wells in the same areas would also test high, but that’s not what happened,” Mr Cooper said. “They are totally random.”

 “The radionuclide contamination of the groundwater appears to be naturally occurring as part of the geological history in the area,” he said. “Newtown isn’t unique. A similar study in any of the areas in the Connecticut River valley could be expected to produce the same results.”

Mr Toal said the levels in the three wells that slightly exceeded the EPA standard are not likely to have an adverse effect on health. Other parts of the country are much higher, he said. “In South Carolina, wells have tested in the 500 to 1000 (pCi/L ) range and some as high as 5,000.” He said that uranium is not a radiological hazard. The health concern is that it is a heavy metal and heavy metals can be hazardous to the kidneys.

Homeowners whose wells test above the EPA standard for uranium can install treatment equipment to remove the uranium, Mr Cooper said. Equipment is available from companies that supply water treatment systems.

The results of the testing confirmed early test results, which showed that there is more radon than uranium in the water.

“Radon in water is not the same as radon in the air,” Mr Cooper said, adding that risks from swallowing water containing radon are believed to be much lower than those from breathing air containing radon. But radon gas can be released into the air when water is used for showering and other household uses. Long-term exposure to high levels of radon can lead to the development of lung cancer, according to the State Department of Public Health, and there may be some risk of stomach cancer for consuming water with elevated radon levels.

 Twenty-one of the 47 wells showed radon levels above the 5,000 pCi/L action level. Most of that number were in the 5,000 to 10,000 pCi/L range, although two were as high as 40,000.

The health district tested the 47 wells for levels of arsenic, gross alpha, uranium, radium 226 and 228, and radon. Arsenic levels for all wells were below the EPA standard; most were close to zero. Most wells also tested below the gross alpha level of 15pci/L, although four were slightly higher and two tested at 205 and 153. The radium 226 and 228 testing showed only two wells at the EPA action level of 5pCi/L and one at above 10.

The public water supply and the schools have been tested, and all except Middle Gate were below the action level.

The state recommends a progressive testing sequence similar to that used by public water systems. If the initial screening indicates there is little or no gross alpha particle activity, then it can be deduced that there is little or no radium 226, radium 228, or uranium in the water so no further testing is necessary. If the initial testing shows elevated gross alpha, additional testing is needed.

“We recommend that homeowners have their wells tested [for gross alpha] just as they would test them for coliform bacteria,” Mr Cooper said. “There are water testing labs all over the state, including one in Newtown on Church Hill Road. We have lists for anyone who is interested.”

For years, the State Department of Public Health has urged all Connecticut residents to test the air in their homes for radon. Test kits are available at most hardware and building supply stores. For homes that test above the action levels, there are techniques and equipment that can reduce radon levels in both water and air.

Mr Cooper said the identity of the households whose water tested high in any of the categories would not be made public. “We promised the homeowners who agreed to be included in this random survey that their identities would be kept confidential,” he explained.

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