What is Radioactive Water? (Everything to Know in 2024)

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We all know that radioactivity in water is something to be concerned about. But what exactly is radioactive water, and how do you know if your water supply is at risk of containing radioactive elements? And how can you treat radioactive water?

We’ve answered all these questions and more in this guide.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • Radioactive water contains various radioactive isotopes, which emit alpha and beta radiation.
  • Some radioactive materials occur naturally, while others are released or emitted as a result of human activities.
  • You can test your water with a radiation water test, and remove radioactive impurities with activated carbon filters, reverse osmosis water systems, and ion exchange water softeners.

🤔 What Is Radioactive Water?

Radioactive water is water that’s contaminated with radioactive substances, which emit radiation.

There are different types of radioactive substances, including:

  • Natural radionuclides: Uranium, radium, and thorium
  • Man-made substances: Isotopes of cesium, iodine, and strontium

There are a few different reasons why radioactive materials may end up in your drinking water supply. You’re more at risk if you get your water from a groundwater source or you live near a source of radiation (such as nuclear power plants and mining operations). We’ve discussed these reasons in more detail later on.

Exposure to radioactive drinking water puts you at risk of a number of health risks, namely cancer. The severity of these health risks depends on factors including the types of radioactive elements present, the concentration of these elements, and how long you’re exposed to these elements in your water.

Barrels with radioactive waste under the ocean

📋 Factors That Increase Risk Of Radioactivity In Water

Radioactivity in drinking water can be caused by several different natural factors and human activities.

Here are some of the factors that increase the risk of radioactivity in drinking water:

Geological Conditions

One of the biggest causes of radioactivity in water is natural radioactive decay. Certain elements found in the Earth’s crust, including radium, uranium, and thorium, undergo natural radioactive decay. During this process, radiation is released. If these radioactive elements are located underground, they may contaminate groundwater supplies.

If you live in a region with high levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials, you’re more likely to have radioactive elements in your water.

Water Source

Your water source also plays a big role in its likelihood to contain radioactive elements. Groundwater is much more susceptible to radioactive contamination compared to surface water because of its exposure to radioactive elements found in the rocks.

So, if you get your water from a private well, a spring, or another groundwater source, it’s likely to be naturally higher in radioactive contaminants than water that comes from a surface source, like a river or lake.

Local Mining Activity & Oil Drilling

Certain mining operations, like those that extract minerals like uranium and radium, cause these radioactive materials to be released into the surrounding environment, including the water sources.

If these water sources are collected for drinking, they’ll likely have a more radioactive nature than water supplies that are far removed from these mining operations.

The same goes for fracking and oil drilling in your local area. These activities can disturb rock formations, causing naturally occurring radioactive elements to be released and possibly contaminating nearby groundwater sources.

Nuclear Accidents & Waste Disposal

Nuclear accidents and the disposal of radioactive materials also greatly increase the risk of radioactivity in water.

Leaks or accidents at nuclear power plants may cause large quantities of radioactive materials into the environment, where they may eventually migrate into our water sources through infiltration and runoff.

The incorrect disposal of radioactive waste (such as from nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons manufacturers, and medicine facilities) can also lead to contamination of water sources, threatening drinking water quality.

Person taking a sample wondering can water become radioactive

🔎 How To Know If You Have Radioactive Water

If you drink water containing radioactive substances, you won’t know about it. Most of these substances have no taste, appearance, or smell in tap water.

The best way to know for certain whether or not you have radioactive water is to conduct a drinking water test.

Testing for radioactive isotopes in your water isn’t something you can do with a simple DIY water test kit. Instead, you’ll need to purchase a testing package from a laboratory.

Depending on the radioactive elements you’re concerned about, you might want to buy a dedicated water test for one element (such as radon), or invest in a complete radioactivity test package. Testing costs around $110-$130 depending on which laboratory you choose.

A complete radioactive water test is your best bet if you have a real reason to be concerned about radioactivity in your drinking water (i.e. if you use private well water and you live in an area with potential radiological contamination).

This test offers broad screening for radioactivity and detects gross alpha and gross beta activity, which could be emitted by man-made radionuclides like radioisotopes of strontium, as well as naturally-occurring radioisotopes of uranium, radon, and radium.

Testing won’t help you to identify the source of the problem, but it’ll give you information on the radioactivity of your water, so you can address the issue as necessary.

Water testing with tap score

📉 Is Radioactivity In Water Regulated?

Yes, radioactivity in tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

The EPA has produced a Radionuclides Rule that limits the concentrations of various radioactive materials in water to reduce our radiation exposure via drinking water supplies. The purpose of the Rule is to protect public health and reduce the risk of radiation side effects, including cancer.

Public water systems (PWS) must monitor gross alpha, combined radium-226/228, and uranium, as well as beta particle and photon radioactivity, in their water supplies, and must treat the water accordingly if radioactive elements are found in concentrations higher than the EPA’s legal limits, known as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs).

Some of the EPA MCLs for radioactivity include:

ContaminantMeasurementUnit
Alpha particles15picocuries per liter (pCi/L)
Beta particles4milliRems per year
Radium 226 and 2285picocuries per liter (pCi/L)
Uranium30micrograms per liter (ug/L)

If you own a private well, you don’t have a public water supplier to treat your water before delivering it to your home. Therefore, EPA regulations don’t apply, and it’s your responsibility to remove harmful contaminants from your water and make it safe to drink.

Testing water quality

🚰 How To Treat Radioactive Water

If you discover that your drinking water contains radioactive material, there are several treatment systems you can use to address this issue and greatly reduce your water’s radioactivity.

Some of the ways to remove man-made and natural radiation from your water are:

  • Activated carbon filters. These water filters reduce radiation levels by adsorbing radioactive contaminants. They’re effective in reducing up to 99% of various radionuclides like radon, but only when large amounts of carbon are used and water has a long contact time with the media.
  • Reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis membranes can remove or reduce several radioactive contaminants. However, it can’t reduce dissolved gases, like radioactive iodine or radon. Most RO systems have a carbon filter that can help to remove radioactive gas, but might not provide complete radiation protection in treated water.
  • Ion exchange. The ion exchange method has proved effective in treating radiation-contaminated water – one report noted that it could reduce trace quantities of radionuclides in liquid wastes produced by nuclear power plants. Some water softener brands, like Culligan, advertise that their water softeners are capable of reducing up to 95% of radon.

📑 Final Word

Radioactive material is a dangerous source of drinking water contamination. Numerous radionuclides emit ionizing radiation that can have dangerous health effects, including cancer, when exposure over a long period occurs.

Hopefully, by now, you know the basic information about the radioactive elements that may be present in varying amounts in your water. Equipped with this knowledge, you can move forward and decide how you want to remove these elements from your water.

  • Brian Campbell
    President & CEO, CWS, CWR

    Brian Campbell, a WQA Certified Water Specialist (CWS) and Certified Water Treatment Representative (CWR) with 5+ years of experience, helps homeowners navigate the world of water treatment. After honing his skills at Hach Company, he founded his business to empower homeowners with the knowledge and tools to achieve safe, healthy water. Brian's tested countless devices, from simple pitchers to complex systems, helping his readers find the perfect fit for their unique needs.

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