New theory for radium under study

Health officials exploring whether problem in the pipes, not the water

Pensacola News Journal
December 1, 2003

The Escambia County Health Department is investigating how harmful levels of radium could settle into water pipes - as they await test results that might shed light on pollution in residents' drinking water.

"Nobody really knows much about this but there are a lot of theories," said Dr. John Lanza, director of the Health Department. He is reviewing scientific papers that describe how radium can attach to mineral deposits in water pipes.

The Health Department launched its research into radium's behavior in water lines after Oct. 30 tests by the Escambia County School District appeared to show that tap water in two elementary schools - Suter and Cook - contained higher levels of radium than the Hagler blending station that provides the schools' drinking water. New tests are planned to confirm the findings.

The effort comes while local attorneys Lisa Minshew and Mike Papantonio - both spearheading separate, multimillion dollar lawsuits over radium pollution - push allegations that radium is lingering in the Pensacola Bay Area water supply and local homes.

Two scientists contacted by the Pensacola News Journal said it is possible for radium to attach to mineral deposits in water pipes and create a reservoir of radium in a drinking-water distribution system.

The problem has been found in community water supplies in Iowa and Minnesota, where radium levels in tap water were deemed unsafe, even though the wells serving the communities met the safety standards, said Rich Valentine, an engineering professor at the University of Iowa-Iowa City, and Don Swailes, drinking water chief for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The Escambia County Health Department is studying Valentine's research.

But two other scientists and a water utility manager in Wisconsin, all of whom have dealt with radium-contaminated drinking water, said they have never heard of radium settling into water pipes.

"That sounds like an unusual situation," said Pat Longmire, a groundwater geochemist for Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. "I wonder if they could isolate where (the radium) is coming from and sample some of the pipe material and see if there is radium on it," Longmire said.

Valentine worked on a scientific team as recently as 2000 to analyze water samples from a rural Iowa town with high radium levels in tap water. He would not identify the town because of a confidentiality agreement.

His team found that radium had absorbed onto mineral deposits in the town's water mains and contributed to the high radium levels in tap water; it also found that homes served by older water mains had higher levels of radium than homes served by newer mains. The findings were published in August 2000 in Environment Internation, a major environmental science journal.

Swailes, of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said there are no federal regulations telling water utilities what to do if the radium levels "get worse in the (distribution) system. It's a complete mess. It puts the utility in a liable position," he said.

While the other experts did not rule out the possibility that radium could attach to mineral deposits, they expressed some skepticism.

Longmire, at Los Alamos, said he does not believe radium will attach to pipe material if the utility keeps the acidity of the water near neutral. "But something could be going on in the pipes," he added.

Two public officials in Wisconsin, a state that has had some of the worst radium drinking-water violations in the country, said they had no knowledge of radium's ability to absorb onto mineral deposits.

"That's new to me," said Lynn West, a radiochemist at the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene.

In Waukesha, Wis., a town of 18,000 near Lake Michigan, a local water utility has tested both tap water and the water supply for decades because of severe radium contamination from geologic sources. The results appear to show that tap water concentrations are about the same as the water supply wells, said Dan Duchniak, general manager for the Waukesha Water Utility.

The town's water has a heavy mineral content, or hardness, he said. But Duchniak said he had never heard of radium settling in water pipes.

"That's very interesting," he said.

An estimated 500,000 Wisconsin residents receive water from radium-tainted wells, according to state officials.

The Escambia County Utilities Authority's 31 drinking water supply wells have all tested safe for radium since 2001. But from 1996 to 2000, ECUA wells supplied Pensacola and Gulf Breeze residents with radium-contaminated water, according to a News Journal investigation in September.

Escambia County health officials said recent water sampling in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze likely will show whether there is radium contamination in individual water lines or the ECUA distribution system. No further action is planned until they receive the test results, all of which should be available in six weeks, the health officials said.

Pensacola attorney Minshew, who filed a $25 million, proposed class-action lawsuit against the ECUA on Nov. 13, alleges that radium poses a threat to 10,000 ECUA customers in Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach. Stating the ECUA distribution system contains radium, Minshew demands the utility pay for water filters for its customers who are allegedly at risk for exposure to radium.

Also, Papantonio recently began offering to test Pensacola Bay area residents' old water heaters for radium.

In response to test results supplied by Papantonio showing local water heaters with radium levels up to 1,000 times the federal safety standard for drinking water, Lanza said he believes many contaminants collect in water heaters but do not pose a significant threat because they are not ingested.

In 2000, Papantonio filed a $500 million lawsuit against Conoco Inc., which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds responsible for cleanup at the Agrico Chemical Co. Superfund site.

Papantonio's suit seeks damages for groundwater contamination in residential areas from radium and other contaminants that leaked from the Superfund site. The case is expected to go to trial in March.


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