Uranium in Drinking Water: What You Need to Know in 2022

Uranium is a heavy metal that has dangerous health effects if it’s found in high levels in drinking water. This glossary will discuss uranium in water, including how it gets there, its potential health risks, and how to protect your family from this contaminant.

❔ What is Uranium?

Uranium is a chemical element and heavy metal that has been used for decades an an energy source.

This silvery-gray metal is weakly radioactive because all its isotopes are unstable, with half lives ranging from around 160,000 years to 4.5 billion years. Uranium slowly decays, releasing alpha particles.

Uranium’s nuclear properties make it a popular material for nuclear weapons. Uranium produces a nuclear reaction that generates heat in nuclear power reactors, making it a commonly used material in nuclear power stations. Uranium also has some medical purposes.

💡 Due to its toxicity and radioactivity, and its status as a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance), uranium doesn’t have any uses in day-to-day life.

In Water AsUO2(CO3)2-2; UO2(CO3)3-4
SourcesNaturally occurring in groundwater and surface water supplies
Phosphate fertilizers containing uranium
Maximum
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
US EPA: 0.030 mg/L; 0 mg/L (MCLG)
WHO Guideline: 0.030 mg/L
EWG: 0.43 pCi/L
Potential Health RisksRisks of kidney damage, liver, or bone cancer
TreatmentsReverse Osmosis
Distillation
Anion Exchange

🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Uranium?

According to the CDC, some of the known health risks of uranium exposure are:

  • Kidney damage (the main health concern)
  • Changes in urine composition
  • Liver or bone cancer

As one of the known radioactive substances, uranium has health risks even when found in low concentrations in the air or water. High levels of uranium affect the kidneys so strongly that they may cause death.

Uranium is also known to decay into radium, another cancer-causing radioactive substance.

Dialysis patient

🚰 How Does Uranium Get Into Drinking Water?

Naturally occurring uranium, or environmental uranium, is found in nearly all rocks, soils, and groundwater and surface water supplies. The uranium concentrations in the earth vary depending on the location. U-235 and U-238 are the most common types of naturally occurring uranium in the environment.

When water flows through rocks and soils containing natural uranium, some of this uranium dissolves, leading to higher levels of uranium in the water. Uranium contamination is most common in private wells, as well water is often sourced from water that has seeped through bedrock with a high uranium concentration. Well water in areas with shale bedrock and granite or alkaline sandstone is most likely to contain low levels of uranium.

Uranium mining may also increase uranium concentrations in the environment due to radioactive waste production, with the highest concentrations in states where uranium is mined heavily. Another human activity that may cause elevated levels of uranium in groundwater is the use of some phosphate fertilizers containing uranium.

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

Yes, water treatment facilities are legally obliged to protect public health by monitoring and treating public drinking water to reduce uranium exposure.

According to the Water Quality Association, there are several guidelines and regulations that public water suppliers must adhere to:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level: 0.030 mg/L (or PPM)
  • EPA Maximum Contaminant Level Goal: 0 mg/L (or PPM)
  • World Health Organization (WHO) Guideline: 0.030 mg/L

The EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level is the maximum level allowed in public drinking water, while the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal is the maximum level of uranium that is thought to pose no public health risk. This suggests that even the legally allowed uranium level in drinking water may be too high.

The Environmental Working Group has its own health guideline of 0.43 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) for radium. According to the EWG’s Tap Water Database, more than 100 utilities in 22 states served around 63,000 people water containing uranium above the legal limit.

laboratory water testing

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

Uranium has no odor or flavor, despite its chemical toxicity and radioactive nature. This means that you won’t know by looking at, smelling, or tasting your water whether or not it contains uranium.

The only way to tell if uranium is in your drinking water is with testing. We recommend laboratory testing, which will provide you with accurate information on your water’s radium concentrations, and the potential risk of exposure. You’ll need to take several water samples and mail them to your chosen testing lab, and you’ll usually receive results within 1-2 weeks.

📌 Private well owners have a greater requirement for uranium testing than people who use a public drinking water supply. If your private well is your primary source of drinking water, it’s important to test your water to determine whether or not it contains harmful contaminants.

water testing with tap score

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

You can’t prevent uranium contamination in the first place – but you can remove uranium from your water supply before it reaches your faucets.

The best way to protect your family from drinking water uranium is to install a suitable water treatment system.

Some of the most capable water treatment options for uranium removal are:

  • Reverse osmosis – A reverse osmosis system sends water through a semi-permeable membrane with tiny pores that most contaminants, including uranium, are too large to fit through. Most reverse osmosis systems are installed as countertop or under-sink units, although some point of entry (whole home) systems can now be found. If you have a private well, you may need to install a pre-filter for your reverse osmosis system to prevent minerals and sediment from damaging the membrane.
  • Distillation – A water distiller removes uranium from drinking water through boiling and condensing. When water evaporates in a distiller, it travels down a cooling corridor and condenses in a separate container. Impurities (like uranium) that are unable to evaporate and condense with water are left behind in the boiling chamber, and can be washed away. Most distillers are countertop systems.
  • Anion exchange – Ion or anion exchange can remove up to 99% of uranium by exchanging the metal with an ion that isn’t harmful to health (such as sodium). Ion exchange is most commonly used in point of entry water softeners to remove calcium and magnesium minerals, but it can also be used to treat water containing uranium, gross alpha, radium, and beta particle and photon emitters.
Reverse osmosis system and distiller

⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Uranium?

Uranium exposure doesn’t only occur from drinking water containing this contaminant. Some of the other causes of uranium exposure are:

  • Eating contaminated food containing naturally occurring radium or radium produced by waste or mining activities. Foods that commonly contain uranium are eggs, fish, beef, poultry, and root vegetables.
  • Inhaling uranium powder in the atmosphere. This is most likely in workers or people living in areas where uranium mining or milling, coal combustion, recycling, or enrichment takes place.
  • Dermal contact with uranium. Dermal exposure is unlikely to affect the general public. Workers who come into contact with uranium wastes, powders, and metals are most likely to be exposed to uranium via direct skin contact.

📝 Where Can I Get More Information?

To learn more about uranium in drinking water, including the potential health effects of drinking uranium, follow the links below.