Question: What do asbestos, radium, nightshade, formaldehyde and arsenic have in common?
Answer: All are “naturally occurring.”
What does this tell us about the safety of these substances? Nothing. Absolutely nothing, because — despite popular belief –“natural” is not a synonym for safe or harmless. So I take special umbrage when officials who are empowered with the safety of the general public use phrases like “naturally occurring” in the same sentence with “radium” and “drinking water,” as if to imply that this has some impact on the safety of the water.
The important questions that need to be asked and answered about potentially dangerous substances — regardless of whether they’re man-made or naturally occurring — are: How big of a dose is harmful? How small of a dose is harmful? How small of a dose is safe?
In the case of radium, the answer to that last question is as simple as it is complex: No one knows. Not the EPA, not DHEC, not the folks at the City of Aiken Water Department, and not even the scientists who have been studying radium exposure for decades now, hoping to find the answer that very question. No one knows what dose of radioactive water that you, personally, can drink on a regular basis over a period of months or years without eventually getting sick or dying as a result.
That said, the EPA, DHEC and the City of Aiken all know the official odds, which predict that 2 liters of water contaminated with 5 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) or more of radium, consumed every day for 70 years, is dangerous. But even then — as these same odds will reassure you – -the chance that you, personally, will die from these chronic exposures is slim, roughly 1 in 10,000.
The problem with these odds is that they constitute an “average” — an average computed on data and statistics averaged across the spectrum of an entire “average” population, an average that does not apply equally to each and every person in that population during any given stage of their lifetime.
For instance, a fetus exposed to these same levels in the womb, through the mother’s cord blood, starts life with a different set of odds. So do infants and young children who consume this radioactive water on a daily basis. The odds are different, still, for a child who is exposed both in the womb and throughout childhood. This is because infants and children do not excrete radium at the same rate as adults but, rather, tend to collect more in their bones.
The rule of thumb for radium absorption in a developing fetus or child is not the same as the EPA’s rule of thumb for the “average” person in the “average” population:
Most radium that is swallowed (about 80%) promptly leaves the body through the feces. The other 20% enters the bloodstream and accumulates preferentially in the bones. Some of this radium is excreted through the feces and urine over a long time. However, a portion will remain in the bones throughout the person’s lifetime.
The odds for infants and young children are unknown, but some research suggests it may be threefold above this “average” rule of thumb. Animal testing concurs that absorption rates differ according to age and developemental stage. According to a report, titled, “Public Health Goal for Radium 226 and 228 in Drinking Water,” issued by the California Environmental Protection Agency in 2005:
Scientists report results that suggest that dietary 226Ra is transferred to the bone at a higher rate during periods of rapid growth than during adulthood or periods of slow growth (Muth and Globel, 1983). Taylor et al. (1962) estimated that radium absorption in suckling rats was 79 percent, and absorption in young adult and old rats was 11 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Data from a beagle study suggest considerably greater radium absorption in immature individuals (Della Rosa et al., 1967).
The odds are also different for people who have different cumulative exposures to radiation throughout their childhoods and lifetimes (e.g. exposures from background radon, x-rays, tobacco smoke and certain foods), as well as for people with certain health issues and compromised immune systems. Nor are the odds the same for people who take showers with that same water, inhaling the steam into their lungs. The variables are myriad.
The scientific community knows this, which is why they continue to study the effects of radium exposure — from the womb onward — hoping to arrive at real odds, rather than guesstimates. Here, it doesn’t take a mathematician to see that — given the actual timeline of research that has been devoted to studying the effects of radium in drinking water — the much-quoted 5 pCi/L per day, 70-year average has hardly stood the test of time. While there exists a body of evidence drawn from medical treatment, lab animal tests and industry exposures to radium, the federal government has only been regulating radium in drinking water since the mid-1970s, so the data on this 70-year prediction is non-existent. Many of the real questions about these odds have yet to be asked, much less answered.
We do know, for instance, that some childhood cancers, such as Wilms tumor, are caused by genetic mutations that spontaneously occur in the womb. What causes these mutations? No one knows for certain. Could it be maternal exposure to pesticides? To chemicals in household cleaners? To radium? To everyday indoor air pollution? Or to a interaction between two or more of these substances? And are some individuals genetically pre-disposed to be more readily affected than others by exposures to certain toxins?
And how many years will it take for the effects of these toxins to appear? And how do the various routes of daily exposure (ingestion vs. inhalation vs. dermal vs. maternal exposure, all of which occur to varying degrees through daily use of tap water) interact within any given individual human being, whose specific age, physiology and levels of exposure cannot be — and have not been — replicated in a lab and then factored into the “average” odds?
Layer upon layer, the complexities of studying the real-life odds for any given individual to any given substance are immensely difficult to pin down. Even as it is acknowledged that small doses of radium may cause cancer in some individuals, there is also research that paradoxically suggests that smaller doses of radium may actually prevent some cancers. Where is that magic threshold?
Unlike, say, deadly nightshade, there is no fanfare attending to the arrival of the deadly threshold of chronic radium exposure. It doesn’t sicken or kill you right away. It takes time for the effects to appear in the form of, perhaps, kidney or liver disease, hematological or bone disease, immunological, developmental, chromosomal or reproductive disorders, and so on. By the time the repercussions arrive, the cause is so far-removed as to be untraceable. And for those who don’t beat the odds, the cause of death will not be listed as radium exposure, pesticides, household cleaners or indoor air pollution. It will be listed as leukemia, bone cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, breast cancer, lymphoma….
Lacking an immediate, scientifically verifiable correlation between cause and effect, the real culprit never makes its way into the annals of medical statistics.
For these reasons and more, when you consult the EPA’s maximum contamination levels (see table below) for radioactive water — which the City of Aiken water supply has surpassed with both Gross Alpha and combined Radium 226 + 228 — it’s important to bear in mind that these figures apply to the average person. The odds have not yet been calculated, that take into account the myriad variables that can and do influence the long-term effects on fetuses, babies, children and other people to whom radium exposure may present greater risks.
Is that radium really naturally-occurring? Or is it man-made? Depends on whom you ask.
In a 1982 Dept. of the Interior/U.S. Geological Survey publication titled, “Groundwater Quality,” under the heading, Radiological Contaminants Found in Groundwater we find the following information, which applies to the specific radioactive contaminants found in Aiken’s drinking water:
CONTAMINANT: Gross alpha-particle activity
Sources to groundwater: A category of radioactive isotopes. Occurs from either natural or man-made sources including weapons, nuclear reactors, atomic energy for power, medical treatment and diagnosis, mining radioactive material, and naturally occurring radioactive geologic formations. Primary concern is natural sources, which are ubiquitous in the environment (Durrance, 1986); secondary concern is man-made sources.
Potential Health and Other Effects: Damages tissues and destroys bone marrow.
CONTAMINANTS: Combined radium-226 and radium-228
Sources to groundwater: Enters environment from natural and man-made sources. Historical industrial-waste sites are the main man-made source.
Potential Health and Other Effects: Causes cancer by concentrating in the bone and skeletal tissue.
Reviewing my attempt last month to pose pertinent questions regarding the radium in Aiken’s drinking water, I’m reminded of the tale of the blind men in a room with an elephant. From both a geographical and geological standpoint, my view was decidedly narrow. Taking a larger look at our state (and the bordering states of North Carolina and Geogia), I see now that my earlier concern over the presence of an EPA Superfund clean-up site in the midst of the watershed area in Aiken where the radium tested high, was similar to the blind man groping the elephant tail and deciding that he held a rope in his hands.
Specifically, I still contend that Feldspar Products (the aluminum sulfate processing industry that generated the toxic waste at this Superfund clean-up site near the City reservoir, Shaws Creek and Shiloh Springs) had no business being issued DHEC permits to mine and to dump wastewater in this sensitive watershed area from 1998 to 2003. However, I must also acknowledge that — if Feldspar Products were indeed processing aluminum sulfate — the likelihood is slim that radium was among the hazardous wastes they generated.
However, were the sulfuric acid from this industry dumped into the watershed, this would certainly affect the pH levels, causing radium to more readily dissolve into the the groundwater and, perhaps, play a role in the radium levels, which have been elevated since 2004 at the test well located three miles downstream from their abandoned operation.
This is separate, of course, from the equally important concern over the unknown hazardous wastes Feldspar Products generated, which have never been divulged to the Aiken public. That said, I’ll turn my focus, for now, away from Feldspar Products and onto the Middendorf Aquifer, formerly known as the Tuscaloosa Aquifer, which is the predominant source of Aiken’s groundwater.
A Bird’s-Eye View of South Carolina’s Radium Belt
Below is a map of the groundwater sites that DHEC monitors in South Carolina, color-coded by aquifer.
Comparing the red dots (DHEC monitored wells) in the above map to the belt of green dots in the map, below, there appears, at first glance, to be a pattern — an alarming pattern, given that the green dots, below, represent the public wells that have tested above the legal limit (5 pCi/L) for radium in drinking water. Could there be a correlation between the Middendorf (Tuscaloosa) Aquifer and South Carolina’s radium belt? Not necessarily.
Here, we see that this “radium belt” falls in the upper coastal plain, right beneath South Carolina’s geological Fall Line, which demarcates the shift between the coastal plain and the piedmont. Unlike the radium overlap with the Middendorf Aquifer, this overlap is part of an even larger pattern. According to a May 2006 article in Geotimes, titled, “Rooting Out Radioactive Groundwater”:
“… Groundwater in the sand aquifers along the upper part of the Coastal Plain in the southeastern United States has high radium levels above the maximum contaminant level of 5 picocuries per liter. This enrichment occurs from Virginia to Georgia, along the transition (known as the Fall Line) between fractured rock aquifers (granite and gneiss) in the Piedmont province to unconsolidated sand aquifers of the Coastal Plain province.“
But even this isnt’ sufficient enough information to draw definitive conclusions, because there are other factors at play.
For instance, there is also the natural drainage from the Blue Ridge region (see map at left) into the Santee Basin, which runs in a path perpendicular to the radium belt and downward into the lower coastal plain, bringing with it whatever constituents and contaminants from the upstate that affect the groundwater in the lower state.
Another factor is the increased rate of water usage via groundwater pumping in some counties, due to increases in development, agriculture and industry, which affects the relationships between geology and groundwater. In Chesterfield County, for example, DHEC has been studying the increased rates of contaminants, including radium, in recent years, which are believed to be caused — in part, anyway — by increased groundwater pumping, which appears to increase the rate at which radium is dissolved in groundwater. Add to this the effects of certain industrial and agricultural chemicals, wastes and land disruptions — not only in Chesterfied County, but statewide — which affect the relationship with pH and sediment, which, in turn, increases the rate at which radium dissolves in groundwater.
In other words, there is an actual relationship between human activities, geology, groundwater and elevated levels of this “naturally occurring” radium in South Carolina’s drinking water. This is partly why some wells test higher than others. This is partly why the readings vary between wells in the same region.
This dynamic is not so different in the human body: the fetus, the infant, the child, the full-grown adult — each and every one responding differently to environmental stresses according to his or her own physiology, age, developmental stage, immune system, health status and/or genetic make-up.
We can say that a small dose of radium to the human body is harmless, the same way that we can say that minor contaminations from industry, agriculture, nuclear plants, toxic wastes and land development are harmless to the environment. And this may very well be so for any isolated incident. But at what point does the cumulative contamination cross the threshold into a dose that can no longer be called “safe”? Which disruption of the landscape, which gallon of fertilizer or pesticide, which teaspoon of toxic waste was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back?
As with the human body, by the time the time the repercussions arrive, the cause is so far-removed as to be untraceable. This is why it’s difficult, if not downright futile, to argue the point when someone touts that the radium in Aiken’s drinking water is “naturally occuring.”
Fact is, it doesn’t really matter whether or not formaldehyde, nightshade, asbestos, arsenic and radium are “naturally occurring.” They’re bad for you. And until science can determine that magic threshold, there are some people who should avoid radium exposure whenever possible. This includes, at the very least, pregnant women, infants and children.
The Perpetual Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
On this note, I have to return to the same conclusions I reached last month, beginning with the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control. This agency habitually abrogates their duty to the citizens of this state by turning a blind eye to the industries that foul our air, water and lands. Feldspar Products is but one among dozens in Aiken County and hundreds throughout the state that have been issued permits, then allowed carte blanche to do as they please with their operations and wastes, sans any concern that they’ll be held accountable for violating environmental laws. The City of Aiken abrogated its duty by not notifying the public in a more timely manner regarding the elevated radiation that has existed in our water for at least several years.
Here’s to the hope that there are at least a few citizens in Aiken whose attention span is longer than a Tweet, and who may have the wherewithal to demand, as I am demanding, that the City of Aiken go a step or two beyond their legal obligations regarding radioactive contamination in our water supply.
Here’s to the hope that — rather than quoting the average odds of dying from our water supply, or reassuring us with meaningless words like “naturally occurring” — the City of Aiken will take a pro-active approach to those human industries and activities that threaten our water supply. Here’s to the hope that they will also be prompt to inform us within days, not years, when our water exceeds the legal limit for radioactivity. Not because they’re legally required to do so, but because — as our town’s “Character” banners would surely attest — it’s the right thing to do.
—- by Ed Sparrow for the Aiken Chronicles
Radiation trivia for South Carolinians:
Got Potassium Iodide? For folk in Aiken County and 12 other counties around the state, DHEC provides free Potassium Iodide tablets, to be taken in the event of a severe nuclear accident. The tablets are available on an ongoing basis, without an appointment, from local health departments. The last batch, issued beginning in 2007, does not expire until 2013.
A-Bomb Hits South Carolina
In a related story:
CLYDE GREGG’S ATOMIC PORK CHOP
In 2005, Esquire magazine discovered that Mars Bluff pig farmer Clyde Gregg, a relative of the Greggs whose home was bombed, had saved a fragment of the atomic weapon, a fragment the size of a man’s hand and the weight of a pork chop. For a long time, Gregg kept it stashed away underneath a stuffed beaver.
Even though the bomb had not been loaded with its nuclear trigger, Gregg’s fragment somehow contained enough radioactivity to make a Geiger counter react. Tests at Francis Marion University indicated the radiation came from traces of uranium.
After Esquire put him in the spotlight, Gregg toyed with the idea of selling the bomb fragment, and in 2005 he put the pork chop on eBay.
“It got a lot of interest,” says Gregg, 56, but the bids never got much past $6,000 or so. Gregg decided to just keep the thing as a family heirloom.
At least two other fragments of the bomb have spent the past few decades hanging on a wall, not hiding under a beaver. The Florence Museum, 558 Spruce St., Florence, offers a small display about the Mars Bluff incident, including a couple of gray and jagged pieces of the bomb’s casing.
Neither is radioactive: The museum had them tested, says director Andrew Stout. “That was one of the first questions I had before I touched them to move them,” he says.