Radionuclides

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Exposure to radionuclides has the potential to harm your health. Contact with any hazardous substances can cause health effects. The occurrence and nature of the effects depend on how much, how long and how one comes into contact with the substance.


What are radionuclides?

Radionuclides are elements that give off radiation as they break down. In nature, radionuclides can be found in rocks and soil and can get into ground water and into wells.

Gross alpha: Are alpha particles that can travel short distances and cannot travel through your skin.

Gross beta: Are beta particles that can penetrate through your skin, but are unable to travel through your body.

Both alpha and beta particles can be released as a product of radioactive decay.

Uranium: Natural uranium is a mixture of three isotopes: 234U, 235U, and 238U. The most common isotope is 238U which make up over 99% of natural uranium. 238U is the least radioactive of the three isotopes.

Radium226/228: Radium is formed when uranium and thorium break down in the environment. Uranium and thorium are found in small amounts in most rocks and soil.

Approximately 80% of exposure to radioactivity is natural and the rest comes from man-made sources. For example, exposure can occur from naturally occurring radiation from the emission of radon gas from rocks and soil, and radioactive elements in groundwater.


How could I be exposed to radionuclides

Individuals can be exposed to radionuclides by ingestion (eating or drinking) and inhalation (breathing). Dermal (skin) exposures to radionuclides are not considered to significantly contribute to increased health risks.

Certain rock types which have naturally occurring trace amounts of mildly radioactive* elements that serve as the "parent" to other radioactive contaminants ("daughter products"). These radioactive contaminants, depending on their chemical properties, may accumulate in drinking water sources at levels of concern.

*Mildly radioactive elements are defined as elements with very long half-lives.


How do radionuclides get into well water?

Radionuclides can get into ground water and into wells if you live in an area where they are naturally present in the rocks and soil.


What areas of the state are more likely to have high levels of radionuclides in groundwater?

There are limited data on the occurrence of radionuclides in North Carolina. We do know that these elements are associated with certain types of rock formations deep underground. The following map shows areas that are more likely to have elevated radon in groundwater based on the location of these rock formations. Radon co-exists with uranium, radium and other radionuclides, so this map also indicates where other radionuclides might be elevated in groundwater. Areas in or around the colored portions of this map may be impacted by radionuclides.


Messier, K. P., Campbell, T., Bradley, P. J., & Serre, M. L. (2015). Estimation of groundwater Radon in North Carolina using land use regression and Bayesian maximum entropy. Environmental science & technology49(16), 9817-9825.


I live in an area of concern based on the map. Do I have radionuclides in my well?

The presence of radionuclides in groundwater varies from neighbor to neighbor. You cannot smell, taste or see any of these contaminants. The only way to know is to get your well water tested.


I do not live in an area of concern based on the map. Should I be concerned about my well water?

The presence of radionuclides in groundwater varies from neighbor to neighbor. These contaminants may even be present in areas that are not generally predicted to have higher levels based on the underlying rock formations. The only way to know is to get your well water tested.


I don’t have a private well. Should I be concerned?

If you receive water from a public water supply (community wells, county systems or municipal systems) your water is regulated by the NC Department of Environmental Quality to ensure your water does not exceed maximum contaminant levels for radionuclides. However, public water supply users may still be at risk from indoor radon in air that comes from other sources besides water.


Do I need to get my home tested for radon in the air?

Yes. The North Carolina Radiation Protection Section recommends that all homes and buildings in North Carolina are tested for radon. Radon is a gas that can enter your home through your floors/foundation and from radon dissolved in groundwater. Testing for radon is important because breathing radon in indoor air can cause lung cancer.


What are the health effects of radionuclides exposure?

The health effects of radionuclides depend on which radionuclides you are exposed to. Generally, drinking water with elevate radionuclides have been linked to adverse health effects and cancer.

Radon exposure has been linked to stomach cancer.

•Uranium exposure has been linked to kidney damage and cancer.

•Radium exposure has been linked to bone cancer.

In addition, breathing air with elevated radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoke. If contaminant concentrations in your well water are elevated, you can contact the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB) in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services at (919)-707-5900. The OEEB can answer questions regarding potential health effects and possible actions to reduce the levels of the contaminant(s) in your well water. You can find additional information on radionuclides, radon and uranium at the following links:

•Radionuclides: https://epi.dph.ncdhhs.gov/oee/docs/Radionuclides_WellWaterFactSt.pdf

•Radon: https://epi.dph.ncdhhs.gov/oee/docs/RadonandLungCancerFactsheet.pdf

•Uranium: https://epi.dph.ncdhhs.gov/oee/docs/Uranium_WellWaterFactSt.pdf


How can I limit or prevent my exposure to radionuclides?

  1. Avoid radionuclides exposure sources.

  2. Test your drinking water for radionuclides. If elevated, consider installing a reverse osmosis treatment system to remove radionuclides from the water.

  3. Test your home for radon. If your test results indicate elevated radon levels, consider installing a radon mitigation system.

  4. If you work around radionuclides, use proper personal protective equipment while working, and wash clothes and/or skin that comes in contact with radionuclides.


Is there a medical test to show if I have been exposed to radionuclides?

There are many ways to see if you have radioactive material in your body. Radioactive material can be measured in your blood, feces, saliva, urine, and throughout your entire body by specialized instruments. The instrument is chosen based on the type of radiation that is to be measured. Consult with your healthcare provider to determine if such a test is recommended and where to receive the appropriate test. Also, these tests cannot tell the level of exposure, nor can they be used to predict whether you will develop harmful health effects.


If I want to get my well tested where can I go?

If you live in Wake County, contact the Wake County Environmental Health Department at 919-893-WELL or visit wakegov.com/wells.

If you live in Franklin County, contact Franklin County Environmental Health Department at 919-496-8100.

If you are not a resident of Franklin or Wake counties, you need to contact a certified laboratory. Here is a  list of all the private labs that are certified by the NC State Lab of Public Health to test for uranium, gross alpha and gross beta – all the radionuclides of concern –  as of July 2019:

This is not an endorsement for any specific laboratory. This information can be found at:

https://slphreporting.ncpublichealth.com/Certification/CertifiedLaboratory.asp


Are there treatment options for radionuclides in my well water?

There are treatment systems that can get rid of radionuclides in water; the type of system depends on the kind of radionuclide.



*The type of ion exchange depends on contaminants detected and location of treatment system (point-of-entry or point-of-use).


How much will it cost to fix the problem if tests find radionuclides in my well water?

If the testing indicates problems, it could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 to install the treatment system. The cost will depend on what the testing indicates and what approach you want to take to fixing it.

To discuss options, you can contact the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB) in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services at (919)-707-5900. The OEEB can provide guidance and recommendations for treatment options to reduce contaminants detected in your well water.


What should I do if I think my health has been affected by contaminants identified in my results?

If you think your health has been affected by contaminant(s) identified in your well water, talk with your doctor about your specific concerns and show them your well water results.


Additional Information

Call the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Public Health at (919) 707-5900 for additional information.


References

Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). ToxFAQs for Ionizing Radiation. September 1999. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts149.pdf

Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). ToxFAQs for Uranium. February 2013. Available at: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts150.pdf

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Ground Water & Drinking Water Factsheets: Alpha Particles. Available at: https://safewater.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/sections/202366578-Alpha-particles

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Ground Water & Drinking Water Factsheets: Beta particles and photon emitters. Available at: https://safewater.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/sections/202346477-Beta-particles-and-photon-emitters

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Radon. August 2016. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/radon





North Carolina Radiation Protection Section

5505 Creedmoor Rd, Suite 100, Raleigh, NC 27612

1645 MSC, Raleigh NC 27699-1645


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