Is there natural radioactivity in drinking water?

Is there natural radioactivity in drinking water?

In our daily life, we are surrounded by radioactivity, from natural or artificial origin. Most of the radioactivity in the environment results from natural elements. In fact, there are radioactive elements in many foods and drinking water. But… How do these elements reach drinking water?

The radionuclides or radioactive isotopes are naturally present in the rocks of the earth’s crust, being the uranium mines a good example of this phenomenon. The content of these natural radionuclides varies between different rocks and soil types, with granite formations being one of the ones with the highest radionuclide content. When groundwater is in contact with these subsoils, it progressively degrades the rocks, dissolving and dragging radionuclides that can be integrated in his chemical composition in concentrations that exceed the standards required by Council Directive 2013/51/Euratom of 22 October 2013. The radionuclides that may be present in drinking water are mainly radon (222Rn), uranium (238U, 234U) and radium (226Ra), among others.

In Spain, the control of radioactive substances in water for human consumption is established according to Royal Decree 140/2003, which indicates the radioactivity parameters to be measured and the maximum values allowed. This RD quotes “all the data generated from the controls of radioactive substances in drinking water or water for the water production for human consumption must be notified in the National Information System on Drinking Water (SINAC)”.

But, do citizens really have access to information about the radiological quality of drinking water? During the development of one of the transversal activities of the LIFE ALCHEMIA project, it has been concluded that, really, the answer varies greatly depending on the country. This European project, co-financed by the LIFE Programme of the European Union, aims to demonstrate the feasibility of environmentally sustainable systems based on oxidations with manganese dioxide and bed filters to removal/reduce the natural radioactivity in water, and minimize the generation of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) in the purification stages.

The LIFE ALCHEMIA project is developing databases that show the levels of natural radioactivity in treated water in drinking water treatment plants throughout the European Union, and it has been observed that in countries such as France or Estonia, citizens have free access to this information, while in countries like Finland or Sweden this information is not public or is not easily accessible. Spain is within this second group. In fact, looking at the SINAC (National Information System on Drinking Water), it is verified that the information on the radiological quality of water, is not accessible to the citizen.

Therefore, hundreds of water managers and City Councils have been contacted to request information, but only a few have responded to this request. This situation is more worrying when the high levels of uranium and thorium present in the subsoil of provinces such as Almería (province where LIFE ALCHEMIA is operating three pilot plants), Pontevedra, Ourense, Salamanca, Cáceres or Badajoz are verified.

This lack of transparency may be due to the fact that the concept of radioactivity does not have a good reputation due to the different catastrophes associated with it, so it is thought that radioactivity is indicative of “death”, even though these catastrophes have no relation to natural radioactivity.

As a final reflexion, three questions:

  • Did I know that water from my tap may contain natural radioactivity?
  • Do I know the radiological characteristics of water I drink daily?
  • And if I want to know them, do I know where I have to go and can I really get that data?

If you try to answer these three questions, you can draw your own conclusions about how this environmental problem is addressed in your locality.

Marta Gómez and Nicolás Martín

Living between dioxins and furans

Living between dioxins and furans

Few days ago, the European project LIFE DIOXDETECTOR was closed in CARTIF. The main objective was the application of a new analytical technique for the quantification of dioxins and furans, being this new technique, mainly, more sensitive and faster with respect to technical traditional.

Dioxins and furans are compounds that form part of a group of dangerous chemicals called Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

When the word “dioxin” is heard, a certain alarm is created, and it is no wonder, because they are “worrying” compounds because of its high toxic potential as well as its persistence in organisms. The half-life of dioxins in an organism is between seven and ten years.

Big catastrophes such as, the serious accident in 1976 at a chemical factory in Seveso (Italy) or high concentrations of dioxins were found in poultry and eggs from Belgium in 1999 or market exit of tons of meat pork and pork products in late 2008 in Ireland, since amounts of dioxins were detected 200 times above the limit prescribed, among others…have been used to study the effects of long term dioxins and furans cause on health and the environment.

Dioxins and furans emission sources are mainly, solid waste incineration, industrial processes (paper mills, foundries, etc.) and road traffic, but also can also be generated naturally (forest fires, etc.).

And it is that although, the problem of dioxins and furans appear that it is so far, because it is possible that you do not live near an incinerator, due to the generalized presence of these compounds, all people have background exposure, which is not expected to affect human health. The effects on human health depend on the time of exposure to these pollutants.

These compounds can cause reproduction and development problems, affect the immune system, interfere with hormones, and in this way cause cancer.

In the environment, studies show that soil and vegetation near incinerators, can become contaminated by the release of dioxins and heavy metals at levels above normal background concentrations. The dioxin levels found in the soil and vegetation depend on the distance to the incinerator.

As cited above, solid waste incinerators are one of the main emissions sources of dioxins and furans. The European Directive for hazardous waste 2000/76, transposed into Spanish law in RD 653/2003, establishes as limit total emissions of dioxins and furans 0.1 ng/Nm3.

Undoubtedly, the most effective measures to prevent or reduce human exposure to these compounds are those taken at the root, i.e., in the own emission sources, with more stringent controls industrial processes in order to minimize the formation of dioxins and furans.

The analysis of these compounds is one of the most complicated in the world. The high toxicity of these compounds at very low concentrations, makes necessary the development of highly sensitive analytical techniques, as the technology proposed in the DIOXDETECTOR project, which is able to detect concentrations below the level of part per quadrillion (ppq).

It is clear that an improvement in air quality, it is quality of life. Just have to take a look at the latest news related to air quality: “Madrid exceeds the limits for nitrogen dioxide and active phase 2 of the protocol anti-pollution City” or “The poor air quality in Aviles forces to decree the pre-pollution alert”, among others, to realize the consequences that entails poor air quality in our daily lives.