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What else is in our water?

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Michael Schultz, guest columnist

Recent incidents of high levels of lead and nitrates in drinking water have caused serious concerns about exposure to these toxins. Lead and nitrates are linked to devastating health effects, particularly in very young children.

This causes many of us to ask, “What else is in our water?”

Radium is another silent carcinogen sometimes found in drinking water. It is a radioactive substance that occurs naturally, including in bedrock aquifers that provide water to communities and private well owners.

Although generally relatively low in drinking water, radium can be concentrated in water from wells under certain conditions and studies have linked an increased cancer risk to those who, over many years, drink water with radium above the maximum containment levels set by the EPA.

Thirty-six percent of Iowans live in rural areas, where private wells are a common source of drinking water. Unlike customers of municipal water systems, there is no requirement for private well owners to test their water, and, therefore, no collective measures about the safety of well water.

Does water from private wells in Iowa contain dangerous levels of radium? While public drinking water supplies are regulated and monitored regularly, we know less about private wells. In addition, there are other naturally occurring radioactive elements that also may be present in private well water, but go undetected because there is not a government program to monitor their presence in private wells.

As the only radiochemistry lab in Iowa certified to test for radionuclides in water, the State Hygienic Laboratory is leading an initiative with three other Iowa agencies to find answers.

The Iowa DNR, University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) and the UI Human Toxicology Program joined the Hygienic Laboratory in a national USGS project.

They jointly will examine the process of measuring radium in drinking water with an emphasis on lead-210, polonium-210, and radium-226/228 in well water.

This research is expected to lead to a more detailed understanding of private well-water placement, types, and depths that can result in elevated radium in water in Iowa. Thus, the project seeks to close the loop on our understanding of the potential exposure of Iowa citizens to natural radioactivity that might exceed safe levels.

To ensure that we continue the high quality of life that we, as Iowans expect, it is important to examine the effects of contaminants in our rural and urban communities.

Iowans should continue to ask, “What else is in our water,” to encourage more public involvement to help us find answers.

What we don’t know can hurt us.

• Michael Schultz is an associate professor in the University of Iowa Departments of Radiology and Radiation Oncology (Free Radical and Radiation Biology Program), and Public Health Ambassador for the State Hygienic Laboratory.

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