Radium in Water: What You Need to Know 2022

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that is known to cause cancer, birth defects, and kidney damage when consumed in drinking water.

This glossary discusses everything you need to know about radium in water, including how radium contaminates water supplies, the potential health effects of drinking radium, and how to protect your family from this metal.

❔ What is Radium?

💡 Radium is a radioactive metal that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. Pure radium is silvery-white in color. Radium is also known to interact with nitrogen when it’s exposed to air, forming a black substance called radium nitrate. Alpha particles are the most common type of radiation released by radium.

Because radium is so radioactive, it has few uses industrially. Occasionally, radium-223 is used to kill cancer cells in the bones. Radium was once used in luminous paints, but it’s now considered too dangerous for this use.

Radium isn’t harmful to environmental health, but internally deposited radium in the human body can pose a serious health risk.

In Water AsRa2+
SourcesLeaching into water supplies
Maximum
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
US EPA: 5.0 pCi/L; 0 pCi/L (Radium 226 & 228 combined)
WHO Guideline: Radium 226 = 1 Bq/l; Radium 228 = 0.1 Bq/l
Health Canada: 0.5 Bq/L (Radium 226 only)
Potential Health RisksHigh risk of cancer
Depression of the immune system
TreatmentsReverse Osmosis
Ion Exchange
Distillation
Lime Softening

🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Radium?

According to the CDC, long-term exposure to low levels of radium in the environment isn’t thought to have adverse health effects. However, if you’re exposed to high levels of radium in drinking water, you may experience the following health effects:

  • Anemia
  • Cancer (especially bone cancer, liver cancer, and breast cancer)
  • Cataracts
  • Depression of the immune system
  • Death

Absorbed radium from drinking water is similar to calcium, and is deposited in the body’s bones and tissues. This radium releases alpha particles that could damage the surrounding tissues. Thankfully, the digestive tract absorbs only a small amount of ingested radium, while the rest exits the body unchanged.

The exact adverse health effects of radium depend on the amount and frequency of radiation exposure, and the type of radium consumed.

Health effects of radium in water

🚰 How Does Radium Get Into Drinking Water?

Radium gets into drinking water through the ground. Radium is naturally present in rocks and soils, and leaches into water that seeps through the earth to aquifers that are used for public and private drinking water supplies. Radium is most commonly found in deep aquifers than in shallow aquifers.

There are several forms of radium, known as isotopes. Most US groundwater supplies contain two common radium isotopes: Ra-226 and Ra-228.

📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Radium in Drinking Water?

Yes, water treatment facilities monitor radium levels in drinking water, and treat water to reduce radium levels to a safe amount for public health.

There are several regulations and guidelines that water facilities must adhere to for radium in water:

For radium 226 and 228 combined:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level: 5.0 pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air)
  • EPA Maximum Contaminant Level Goal: 0 pCi/L
  • World Health Organization Guideline: Radium 226 = 1 Bq/l (becquerel per liter); Radium 228 = 0.1 Bq/l

For radium 226 only:

  • Health Canada: Maximum Acceptable Concentration: 0.5 Bq/L (13.5 pCi/L)

All public water treatment facilities are legally obliged to follow EPA guidelines to reduce radium levels to a safe amount. The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level is the maximum amount of radium that’s allowed in drinking water, while the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal is the maximum amount of the contaminant that is thought to have no health effects.

Although these public guidelines are in place, some water treatment facilities have been found to provide water with elevated radium levels to their customers. A database from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows that 197 utilities in 32 states have served water over the legal limit for radium to nearly 600,000 people. The EWG believes that the EPA’s MCL for radium is too high, and has set its own guideline of 0.05 pCi/L.

Private drinking water supplies aren’t monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. Well owners must test and treat their own water to remove radium if alpha particles are detected.

Tap water quality testing

🔎 How Can I Tell if Radium is in My Drinking Water?

Radium has no taste or smell, and doesn’t change the color of water. The radiation emitted from radium is invisible to the eye and nose. This means that you won’t be able to detect radium in your water simply by looking at, tasting, or smelling it.

The only way to know whether or not your water contains radium is to conduct a water test. Radium is difficult to detect with a standard DIY test kit – the only way to effectively test for this contaminant is with professional laboratory testing.

Based on your testing needs, find a test that’s appropriate for you. Some laboratory tests detect the two most common types of radium, while others only test for one form of radium.

Laboratory testing is especially important if you own a private well. If you’ve never tested your water for naturally-occurring radium, don’t just assume that it’s radium-free. Your local health department may be able to offer information on your local geology that may point to radium contamination, but a private test is the only way to know for sure whether your water contains this contaminant. Get your water tested regularly for radioactive substances to ensure radium is never above Maximum Contaminant Levels.

Alternatively, if your water comes from a public drinking water supply, you can check your Water Quality Report (or Consumer Confidence Report) to learn about the radium present in your treated water.

Water Quality Reports list all of the contaminants in water, including toxic substances like radium, and compare these to the national regulations. Keep in mind that these reports are only accurate to a single given day of the year and don’t account for fluctuating levels of naturally occurring radium in the water.

Tap score water testing kit

👩🏽‍⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Radium in Drinking Water?

If elevated levels of radium are detected in your public or private water supply, the best way to protect your family from this natural radiation is to install a water treatment system in your home.

A water treatment system is installed at your water line and treats water before, or just after, it leaves your faucet. There are several feasible treatment technologies for radium reduction:

  • Reverse osmosis – A reverse osmosis system offers a much more thorough means of water treatment than any water treatment company provides. Reverse osmosis involves sending water at a high pressure through a semi-permeable membrane, which has tiny pores that remove varying amounts of virtually all contaminants – including up to 90% of radium present. These water treatment units may require pre-treatment if you have well water with a high mineral or sediment content.
  • Ion exchange – Ion exchange is best-known for its water softening capabilities, but cation exchange softening can also be used to reduce elevated levels of radium. An ion exchange softener can remove up to 90% radium alongside water hardness minerals, replacing radium with sodium (which has no public health concerns in trace amounts). Ion exchange systems are installed as point of entry systems, offering radium-free water throughout the entire home.
  • Distillation – A water distiller boils and condenses water, leaving the majority of substances behind in the boiling chamber. Distillation is one of the most effective methods of water purification, producing clean, contaminant-free water. Distillers can remove up to 100% radium, but this process isn’t fast – it takes four to six hours to distill a 1-gallon batch of water.
  • Lime softening – A lime softening system adds lime or soda ash to water, causing hardness minerals (calcium and magnesium) to be precipitated out. The lime softening process can remove up to 90% radium, as well as uranium, arsenic, and iron. For this process to work, water’s pH must be above 10.6 and the water must contain a significant amount of magnesium.

If you think you’ve already been exposed to high levels of radium, book a consultation with your doctor. A urine test can be used to determine your radium exposure.

Tank-based ro system installed under-sink

⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Radium?

Eating, drinking, or inhaling substances containing radium are all possible causes of radium exposure. Radium isn’t thought to be absorbed through the skin, so touching radioactive elements is considered safe.

Aside from drinking radioactive elements in your water, you may also be exposed to radium present in the environment in the following ways:

  • Breathing radium in the air. Due to the natural levels of absorbed radium in our soils and surface water, radium is present in the air we breathe.
  • Through industrial pollution. The burning of coals and other fuels in factories leads to an increased level of radium in the air. If you live near a factory or a power plant, you’re at a higher risk of inhaling excess levels of radium.
  • Certain occupations. Factory workers and miners who work with hard rock and uranium are likely to be at a higher risk of radiation received externally, typically through inhalation.
  • Radioactive waste sites. Your proximity to a site of radioactive decay determines how much radium is found in your environment.

Many sources of radium exposure are out of your control. We can’t avoid breathing in radium in the air – but thankfully, only a small portion of our radium exposure is from the atmosphere.

If you’re concerned about industrial pollution in your region, reach out to your local public health service to ask for more information.

📝 Where Can I Get More Information?

Looking for more information about radium in drinking water, including sources of radium and radium’s effects on human health? Follow the links below.