Heavy Metals And Bioaccumulation: What You Need to Know

Part 1: Why Heavy Metals Accumulate in Your Food and Your Body

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Picture the food web–an interconnected tangle of species, all relying on each other for energy and nutrients. Though most of what gets passed along from the tiniest microbes to humans enables us to live, a small fraction of it can be toxic. Heavy metals are natural elements that–in high doses–are poisonous to humans. They enter our bodies mainly from lower down on the food chain through a process called bioaccumulation.

What are heavy metals, and what does it mean for them to bioaccumulate? Why is heavy metals bioaccumulation dangerous for your health? We’ve got the answers–and some tips on what to do–below.

What are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals are present in earth’s crust alongside other metals, minerals, and organic matter. Some examples include: mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, & thallium. Heavy metals are defined as “heavy” in comparison to water, meaning that they have a higher molecular weight than 18 g/mol. Heavy metals also find their way into watersheds from concentrated wastewater, sewage, industrial activities, and mining operations. These metals can contaminate soil systems and water sources.

People are exposed to heavy metals in a few different ways, primarily through drinking water or food (crops can uptake metals from contaminated soil or meat and fish products may contain bioaccumulated metals). Many heavy metals are poisonous to humans, even in small concentrations.

What is Bioaccumulation?

Bioaccumulation is essentially the buildup of contaminants such as heavy metals or pesticides in living organisms. Aquatic organisms are often subjectto bioaccumulation because they absorb contaminants from the water around them faster than their bodies are able to excrete them. Humans are alsosubject to bioaccumulation, either from consuming contaminated aquatic organisms or from exposure to contaminants in our food, air, or water. Heavy metals do not biodegrade, which means they can last for a long time in our bodies.

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Bioaccumulation in the food chain begins with the smallest microorganisms and ends with humans. Heavy metals are able to bind to the surface of microorganisms (like phytoplankton in oceans) and sometimes enter the cells themselves.

Once they enter the cell, heavy metals can react with chemicals released by the microorganism to digest food, and undergo chemical transformations. (An example is mercury becoming methylmercury, which is especially dangerous because methylmercury is more easily absorbed by living organisms.) Insects and zooplankton eat microorganisms, fish eat zooplankton, and eventually humans order a tuna to eat at a restaurant!

At every point in this process, heavy metals bioaccumulate in the bodies of each living organism — by the time they get to us, we consume the heavy metals in high concentrations. The increase of heavy metals concentration up the food chain is called biomagnification.

Health Effects of Heavy Metals

Unfortunately, heavy metals can have serious health effects for humans. Many play a role in cancer development or cause internal organ damage, even at low concentrations. Cadmium, cobalt, lead, nickel, and mercury are also known to affect the formation of blood cells–the metals can react with the surface of the cells, making them less elastic and therefore less able to circulate throughout the body. Here we’ve summarized five critical heavy metals and their known health effects:

Mercury

Mercury is known to cause brain damage in developing children, and if you’re pregnant, it can cause birth defects or possibly a miscarriage. Methylmercury compounds are also known to cause cancer. There is a deep concern about mercury exposure through predatory fish such as tuna, which is the second most popular fish in the US. An example to demonstrate the magnitude of the issue is if a 45 lb child eats one 6 oz can of white tuna per week, the child is already exceeding the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mercury limit.

Lead

Lead is particularly harmful for children. It is structurally similar to calcium and can therefore replace calcium in the growing bones of children. Once the child is grown, the lead can release into the body and cause brain and nerve damage. Lead can also cause anaemia, reproductive issues, and renal impairment. People are usually exposed to lead through contaminated food or water, or in the case of children, from ingesting objects with lead paint. Lead can be expelled at very low levels, but at high or continuous doses, lead bioaccumulates in the body.

Cadmium

Cadmium remains in human bodies for decades, and long-term exposure is linked to renal dysfunction. A high concentration exposure can also lead to bone defects and lung disease, which may eventually become lung cancer. People can be exposed to cadmium not only through food and water, but also from tobacco in cigarettes.

Chromium

At low levels, chromium only causes skin irritation and ulcers. Longer-term exposure, however, can lead to liver issues, renal tubular damage, and cancer. Similar to mercury, chromium easily accumulates in aquatic life.

Arsenic

Arsenic is technically considered a metalloid, but acts like a heavy metal in its toxicology. Arsenic exposure can cause breathing problems, lung and skin cancer, decreased IQ, nervous system issues, and even death at high levels. Arsenic easily enters groundwater and soils from natural sources and industrial operations. Some crops can uptake arsenic after irrigation or from the soil, an example being rice, leading to exposure through food.

How to Reduce Your Exposure

Though these health effects may seem frightening, there are a few simple ways to reduce your exposure to heavy metals and protect your health! A few include:

  • Avoid certain fish: Specifically, fish that are high in mercury such as king mackerel, swordfish, marlin, & tilefish. It is particularly important to reduce tuna consumption, especially in the form of tuna steaks or canned white albacore. For other options, check out this guide to eating sustainable and lower-risk fish.
  • Read medicine labels: Some may contain heavy metals as ingredients.
  • Minimize rice consumption: There is evidence that rice contains arsenic and thus increases cancer risk. Rinsing rice before cooking may reduce risk.
  • Stop smoking tobacco: Arsenic, lead, and cadmium levels have been detected in cigarettes and e-cigarette vaporizers.
  • Be aware of lead pipes & filter your water: This concept is addressed further in Part 2 of this article–where we’ll focus on heavy metal exposure and remediation. Essentially, because heavy metals can enter groundwater or leach from pipes, it is important to filter them out before drinking water.

Have more questions? This source offers extensive details about the environmental occurrence of specific heavy metals, how humans are exposed to them, and their toxicity/carcinogenicity.

Or, feel free to email us at contact@simplewater.us!

Sources: 

https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bioaccumulation-heavy-metals

https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1205875/

https://saferchemicals.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/heavy-metals-2/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4144270/

https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodScienceResearch/RiskSafetyAssessment/UCM486543.pdf

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214750014001292

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/bioaccumulation

https://www.webmd.com/baby/4-common-causes-miscarriage#1

https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/how-does-toxic-mercury-get-into-fish

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19868909

https://data.web.health.state.mn.us/lead

https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=34&po=6

https://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/bioaccumulation

https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2018/study-lead-and-other-toxic-metals-found-in-e-cigarette-vapors.html

https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=51520&picture=fish-in-lake-2

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tara_River_Underwater.jpg

How Low Can You Go? Lab Detection Limits Explained

IDL, LOD, MDL, PQL, LOQ… How an analogy of sailboats and the rough sea can help explain laboratory limit of detection levels so that you can better understand your Tap Score Water Quality Report.

All laboratory testing instruments and methods have an inherent minimum detection level – a concentration below which an instrument fails to measure something reliably. If you’re doing a laboratory water test then you want to know how low of a concentration your laboratory’s instruments can “see”. 

Understanding this detection limits requires you to understand these 7 acronyms:

Compound of Interest (COI)

The chemical, biological or radiological parameter (analyte) that you are trying to measure.

Background Noise (BN)

The other compounds in your sample which are similar enough to your compound of interest that they interfere with your ability to differentiate your compound from this other stuff.

Limit of Detection (LOD)

The concentration at which you detect your compound of interest but the concentration of your compound is too low to really distinguish from other compounds (background noise).

Instrument Detection Level (IDL)

The lowest level at which the laboratory’s instrument can detect but not quantify a contaminant.

Method Detection Level (MDL)

The lowest level at which the laboratory is confident in what it’s detecting.

Practical Quantification Limit (PQL)

Level at which a laboratory is very confident in what it’s detecting and measuring concentrations.

Limit of Quantification (LOQ)

The concentration at which you are confident enough to accurately quantify the concentration of your compound of interest.

Helpful Analogy: Sailboats On The Horizon

To understand your water quality, we want to know if compound exists in your water and if it can be quantified (a concentration above the LOQ) or if a compound is present, but the concentrations are too low to be quantified (a concentration above the LOD, but below the LOQ). If this sounds confusing, we understand. So, we are going to use an analogy to explain detection limits.

Imagine yourself standing on a beach and looking out towards the horizon, trying to see a sailboat far, far away at sea. You squint your eyes, looking for the white, triangle shape of a sail.

But so far away, it’s difficult to know for sure what you can see. Is that a sailboat out there? Is it a rowboat? Is that just the white tip of a distant wave?

What is the Limit of Detection (LOD)?

Imagine now that at some closer distance, still quite far away, you are able to confidently say that you do see a boat. You definitely see something. However, you can’t be totally sure how big the boat is. This kind of confidence–that you can see something for sure, corresponds to what laboratory sciences calls the limit of detection (LOD). While you do see something, it’s not clear how big the boat is (i.e. the concentration). 

For lab instruments, it’s the same. Imagine we have different people (i.e. different instruments) on the shore. They each have binoculars with different magnification strengths. Those people (i.e. instruments) with higher magnification binoculars will be able to see the boat earlier and confidently say that they see a sailboat. You can take this analogy a step further too. Imagine it’s a rough day at sea. When it’s a rough day at sea the distance at which you can see something confidently must be even closer to you when you look for the sailboat on a clear day. As such, the LOD can, and does vary. It will change depending on the instrument being used and the background noise (storminess) of the water sample you're testing.

The method used with a specific instrument can also introduce additional factors that influence detection limits. For a given method, the ability to see the sailboat with a high level of confidence is called the method detection level (MDL). The MDL is the smallest amount we can see of something using a particular pair of binoculars and still be 99% sure that we see a sailboat and not a white cap.

In summary, the limit of detection depends on the instrument used and the method used. LODs indicate the concentration at which you are confidently able to detect a compound of interest without quantifying how much of that compound exists–a contaminant at the concentration of the LOD is too low for us to distinguish it from background noise. While the IDL can influence and impact the MDL, the MDL ultimately determines a laboratory’s LOD.

What is the Limit of Quantification (LOQ)

Of course, we want to know at what distance we can look out at the horizon, see a sailboat and be very confident in assessing how big the sailboat is. We can see the flapping of the sail and the people running around on the deck. We can even measure the height of the sail. In contrast to the LOD, the limit of quantification (LOQ) allows us to see the sailboat and how tall its sail is. The LOQ determines the concentration at which you are confident enough to say what you see AND how much of it you see.

While there is no such thing as ever being 100% sure, there is the LOQ. The LOQ is calculated based upon a loose set of recommendations and guidelines that help establish what it means to be very confident of what you see and how much of it you can see accurately. This usually means the lab is detecting something that is 5-10X more intense (more obvious) than its surroundings (“background noise”).

How to determine the Limit of Quantification (LOQ)?

Labs determine their limit of quantification by placing their own sailboat out in the water. You know the height of your sailboat. This is called your Standard. You go back to the beach and look out at the horizon. You see your sailboat. Check.

Then you then keep moving the boat further away from the shore (i.e. diluting your sample) until your boat’s sail is just distinguishable from the white caps around it. This is the signal (the sailboat) to noise (the white caps) ratio.

Again, the Limit of Quantification is the lowest concentration at which we are confident we can detect our compound of interest and confidently determine its concentration (e.g. the height of the sail). In the language of sailboats, it’s the furthest away that you can be confident that you’re seeing your sailboat and not white-caps or another boat.

Various labs will calculate their LOQ in different ways. For example:

LOQ = LOD x 10    OR

LOQ = MDL x 6

Ultimately, it’s up to the laboratory to decide what what they are very confident of (whether they see a signal with intensity 6, 10 or 20 times higher than the background noise).

Reference

Much of the material for this explanation of laboratory detection is borrowed from the elegant writings of EPA’s Region III quality assurance fact sheet (revision no. 2.5) on instrument detection limit, method detection level, and practical quantitation limit (March 17, 2006).

Chloramine, Chlorine, Lead and Pipes: How Water Treatment Turned Toxic

What do the most Common Water Treatment Chemicals–Chlorine and Chloramine–Have to do with Lead in Water?

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Flint’s water crisis is a disastrous story of negligence and environmental injustice. After the city switched its water source, lead–a neurotoxic metal– began leaching from pipes into people’s drinking water. Families drinking tap water found their children had increased blood lead levels. While the mayor of Flint announced in April that the water is finally safe to drink again, many are still skeptical and concerned.

How did simply switching from one river to another river have such drastic effects on people’s water quality? TapScore has written this guide to help you understand why switching water sources (e.g. in Flint) or water disinfectants (in the case of D.C. water) can cause lead to leach from pipes, what the dangers are, and how to protect yourself.

The Science Behind Lead in Flint and D.C.

To understand how lead leaches into water, we first need to know what water disinfectants are and how they can affect drinking water and human health. We’ll bring you through the science behind lead leaching in pipes through the stories of two different cities that made changes to their water: DC switched its disinfectant, while Flint switched its water source.

What Are Water Disinfectants?

The water that enters our homes is sourced from natural rivers, lakes, and man-made reservoirs. This water contains microorganisms, organic matter, soil, naturally occuring metals, and much more. The particulate matter and natural elements can be filtered out using physical barriers (e.g. reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, or other filtration methods). Microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria, however, must be killed using a disinfectant.

Chlorine is the most common disinfectant, but other disinfectants include chlorine dioxide, chloramines, UV light, and ozone. Since its introduction in the late 1800s, chlorine disinfection has become a major public health accomplishment, responsible for lowering the rates of infectious diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis, and cholera. Unfortunately, chlorine can also react with other naturally occurring materials in water to form disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which can be harmfulto long-term health. Regulation of DBPs inspired the use of chloramines as an alternative disinfectant because it forms less of the most common forms of DBPs. Chloramines are formed when ammonia is added to chlorine. But, as you may have guessed–chloramine has its own unintended consequences.

Switching from Chloramine to Chlorine

D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) switched from chlorine to chloramine to reduce risk of DBPs. Shortly thereafter, high lead levels became a concern–but WASA was slow to respond and communication to households failed to adequately portray the urgency of the water quality problem. Researchers (led by Dr. Marc Edwards, who later got involved in Flint) found that, between 2001-2003, blood lead levels in children were four times higher when compared to the year 2000. Edwards claims that D.C.’s lead crisis is 20-30 times worse that of Flint – with lead concentrations found to be three times higher than those in Flint and 6.5 times the amount of people exposed.

After these findings, the city of D.C. reverted from chloramine back to free chlorine in 2004. They subsequently found that water lead levels in some samples were up to 10-fold lower and that almost all samples were below the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb). WASA concluded that chloramine was not solely responsible for lead leaching, but that the absence of chlorine resulted in pipe corrosion.

Lead (or any metal) leaching occurs when corrosive water enters an old pipeline and easily reacts with the metal pipes, creating metal ions that enter the water. Chlorine can combine with lead to form an oxide, which acts as a passivation (protective) layer on the inside of the pipes. This protective layer was protecting pipes from corrosive water.

These findings left D.C. with a public health predicament: neither option was entirely safe. Fortunately, compounds such as zinc orthophosphate exist to help corrosion control while using chloramine as a disinfectant by reacting with pipes to form a passivation layer. While D.C. has kept corrosion control on a priority list, thousands of lead pipelines still remain in the city’s distribution system.

Switching Water Sources

When Detroit Water and Sewer decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the goal was to save costs. The city planned to switch to Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron, but they had about a year before the project was complete–so they turned to Flint River. As we now know, engineers and officials failed to adequately manage the new source.

Health data showed that the number of children with lead levels in their blood had increased from 2.4% to 4.9% after the water source switch. One sample of Flint’s water had a record breaking level of 13,200 ppb lead, which is almost 900 times higher than the EPA limit. Lead is neurotoxic and dangerous for anyone, but especially for children because it can stunt their development and lead to behavioral problems and decreased IQ.

Lead leaching into drinking water shares similar water chemistry in Flint as in DC. The original water source that came in treated from Detroit had added orthophosphate to account for lead pipes, which created a strong passivation layer made of phosphate minerals. When Flint started treating its own water, they did not add orthophosphate and they did not adequately control the pH of their new water. When pH is too low (more acidic) in the absence of orthophosphate, lead can leach into the drinking water. The protection layer was quickly corroded, exposing Flint’s lead pipes and leading to lead leaching in water.

How can I protect myself?

An estimated 15-25 million homes are still connected to lead pipelines laid before they were banned in 1986. While most water systems actively manage the water quality and test for lead, the stories of Flint and D.C. illuminate how quickly things can go wrong. Hopefully, any metal leaching situation you may encounter is not as extreme. There are some things that you can do to protect yourself, depending on whether you are a private well user or are a public water system customer.

Public Water System

  • Check up on your local water treatment plant to ensure they are conditioning (filtering & disinfecting) your water properly
  • Encourage your city to replace old pipes, especially if they’re lead
  • If you own your house and are able to replace old pipes, faucets, and fixtures within your home, do so, or
  • Test your water for lead and use a (reverse osmosis) water filter if you have a lead concentration that the product can treat

Private Well

  • Keep up with conditioning (i.e. filtering & disinfecting) your water properly for the type and age of pipes that you have
  • If you drill a new well, monitor your water quality before and after switching to a new source
  • Replace old pipes, faucets, and fixtures in your home and within your well if they’re lead or
  • Consult the experts! Tapscore offers a lead specific test as well as an Advanced Well Water Test, and we can help discuss treatment options with you that will work for your unique water composition and chemistry.

More questions?

Feel free to chat with us a hello@simplewater.us!

Sources: 

https://archive.epa.gov/region03/dclead/web/html/chlorine.html

https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/chloramines-drinking-water

https://archive.epa.gov/region03/dclead/web/html/disinfection.html

https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es802789w

http://www.insidesources.com/whistleblower-traces-flints-roots-to-washingtons-own-water-crisis/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0043135417302099

https://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i7/Lead-Ended-Flints-Tap-Water.html

https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/q3.pdf

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/why_are_disinfection_byproducts_a_public_health_concern.pdf

http://wiki.biomine.skelleftea.se/wiki/index.php/Leaching_%28mobilization%29

https://www.awwa.org/Documents/DCDFiles/15771/jaw_waternet.0065358.pdf

What is Reverse Osmosis (RO)?

Reverse Osmosis is an advanced water filtration technique, but is it for you?

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Finally! A detailed explanation for the type of water filtration you’ve probably heard most about, and for a good reason–reverse osmosis (RO) treats more contaminants than almost any other filter.

RO can filter out contaminants like arsenic, bacteria, lead, and fluoride. This makes it a popular treatment technology in water systems, but also at home. RO systems range from under-the-sink to point of entry (POE) installations treating the whole home’s water.

If you already have an RO and are trying to diagnose a leak or a problem with your system, hop over to our handy problem-identification guide about RO system leaks. For newcomers or interested-RO owners, Tap Score created this guide to explain how reverse osmosis works, which contaminants it does and does not remove, and what some of the pros and cons of an RO system are.

How does Reverse Osmosis Work?

Osmosis occurs in the natural world and is essential to many plants and animals’ life processes (an example being when plants absorb water from soil). During osmosis, water moves across a semipermeable membrane from an area with a low concentration of dissolved particles to an area with a high concentration of dissolved particles. A semipermeable membrane is a material that lets some atoms or molecules through while stopping others–similar to a screen door letting in air but keeping bugs out. This flow leads to an equal concentration of particles in water on either side of the semipermeable membrane.

Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, does not occur in nature. It requires added energy in the form of pressure to force water to move from an area of high concentration of particles to an area of lowconcentration of particles.

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The effect is to concentrate contaminants on one side of the semipermeable membrane (the waste stream) and produce freshwater for drinking on the other side (fresh water product).

What does an RO System Include?

Reverse osmosis itself only includes the passage of water through a semipermeable membrane. However, RO systems always contain additional pre-treatment filters and often post-treatment filters. These extra filters are referred to as “stages”. For example, if you see an RO system advertised as a 5-stage system, that means water passes through 5 stages of filtration before arriving at your faucet.

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Pre-treatment

Semi-permeable membranes are very sensitive–this means they are easily damaged if water is not properly treated before reaching the membrane. There are multiple kinds of pretreatment filters that water must pass through to prevent foulingscaling, and premature RO membrane failure:

  • Multimedia filtration/microfiltration is used to filter out sediment particles such as sand, clay, and plant matter/microorganisms. If these particles are not filtered out, they can cause fouling–they accumulate on the RO membrane and plug it up. 
  • Granular activated carbon (GAC) removes organic contaminants and disinfectants in the water such as chlorine or chloramines. Chlorine and chloramines are oxidizers and can react with the RO membrane and “burn” holes in it. 
  • Antiscalants/scale inhibitors are chemicals added to water to prevent scaling on the RO membrane. Scaling happens when dissolved compound concentrations exceed their solubility limits and precipitate out of the water and onto the membrane. A common example is calcium carbonate, or CaCO3, which occurs frequently if you have hard water. 

If pre-treatment is not used or maintained properly, fouling and scaling can decrease water flow across the membrane and decrease water quality.

Post-treatment

Post treatment can include an additional GAC filter to remove any last organic contaminants that still remain, remineralization/alkaline treatment, or UV treatment for bacteria.

What Does Reverse Osmosis Remove from My Drinking Water?

RO can treat inorganic contaminants such as (but not limited to):Arsenic

  • Asbestos
  • Nitrates & sulfates
  • Lead, aluminum, copper, nickel
  • Dissolved solids/salts

However, because all RO systems also contain carbon and sediment pre-filters, they can also filter some pesticides, algae, some bacteria & viruses, and other organic contaminants. (For a full list of RO treated contaminants click here).

Reverse osmosis does not remove molecules smaller than 0.0001 micrometers or molecules that are nonpolar, such as dissolved gases. Specifically, it does not catch:

  • Some pesticides/herbicides (1,2,4-trichlorobenzene, 2,4-D and Atrazine)
  • Some ions & metals (chlorine, radon)
  • Organic chemicals that weigh less than water (Benzene, Carbon tetrachloride, Dichlorobenzene, Toluene and Trihalomethanes (THMs))

Though some of these small particles may be caught by the carbon pre-filters, it is not guaranteed.

Common Complications Using Reverse Osmosis

There are a number of downsides to using reverse osmosis, including:

  • Increased water usage: Only 20-30% of the source water is discharged as clean water while 70-80% is discharged as more concentrated wastewater, so your water usage and bill will most likely go up.
  • Lot of upkeep: You must be very diligent about changing all of the pre-treatment filters on time–if chlorine is in your water and breaks through, you may cause permanent damage. RO membranes must also be sent away and cleaned by a serving company 1-4 times per year.
  • Difficult installation: A hole must be drilled in your home’s main drain pipe for the wastewater line, and in the countertop/sink for the faucet.
  • Water pressure: RO systems can decrease water pressure throughout your house.
  • Limited under sink space: Storage tank for treated water can take up under sink storage.
  • Can remove too much: Reverse osmosis can filter out good minerals from water such as ion and manganese. 

The Ultimate Question: Is a Reverse Osmosis System Right for Me?

If you have a problem with inorganic contaminants such as arsenic, fluoride, or nitrates, or if you have a high total dissolved solid (TDS) count, RO is likely a great option for you. If you have multiple water quality issues that include both organic and inorganic contaminants, reverse osmosis is a good option that will cover all your bases.

It is important, however, for you to know your water’s full chemical profile before installing a reverse osmosis system. Why should you test before you treat with RO? RO is expensive and time consuming–so you’ll want to make sure this is the right choice. Further, membranes can be damaged by certain contaminants present in your water, so knowing what type of pretreatment you need is essential, just like Tap Score’s Essential Water Test.

Have more questions? Feel free to email us at contact@simplewater.us!

Is My Water Radioactive?

No, we’re not asking if your water is turning you into a monster...radioactivity in water is a real threat.

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Radioactivity is not scary in the way that movies and popular culture depict. Sadly, it is much stealthier–it can cause irreparable damage to your body that stays hidden for years, or even across generations.

We are exposed to natural radiation in our daily lives (an example being bananas!). Radioactive particles, or radionuclides, are a part of the natural world–they exist in plants and animals usually as potassium-40 or radium-226. However, increased exposures to radiation occurs in our water or air when nuclear power plants, mining operations, or laboratories release radioactive materials into the environment.

Tap Score has written this guide to help you understand what radiation really is, what the associated risks are, and what types of radioactive elements are common in drinking water, and how they should be treated.

Getting the Terms Right: What Are Radioactive Particles?

Radiation refers to any process that emits energy in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles, such as light or sound. When we talk about radioactive particles, we are specifically referring to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is radiation that causes an atom or molecule to lose electrons and become charged–this charged molecule is called an ion.

Radioactivity is “the act of emitting radiation spontaneously”. An atom can be radioactive when it is unstable and wants to dissipate some of its energy to reach a more stable form.

The different “forms” of stable or unstable radioactive elements are called isotopes. We distinguish these radioactive isotopes by their mass, which is attached to the end of the element name, like Uranium-238.

Radioactive Particles in Water are Alpha or Beta

Radioactive particles are present in rocks and soil, which usually serve as the path to enter groundwater. The two types of radioactive particles present in water are alpha and beta particles–which are present in different sizes and element types.

Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons. Common examples in water are radium-226, radon-222, uranium-238, polonium-210, lead-206. While alpha particles cannot penetrate skin from the outside, they are active in the body and can cause damage if consumed.

Beta particles are radioactive particles made up of one electron. Common examples in water are strontium-90, potassium-40. Beta particles can penetrate the top layer of skin and cause burns. Beta particles likely cause more damage inside the body than alpha particles–they have more energy and can therefore travel farther into body tissue than alpha particles can.

Radioactive Particles in Water

We are concerned about naturally occurring radiation and additional radioactive particles that enter water from rock formations near mining sites, nuclear power plants, or laboratories. Radon, in particular, occurs in gaseous form in soils and can dissolve into groundwater or enter homes as a gas through the basement. Exposures to radon in both air and water are seriously concerning–here, we focus on exposure through drinking water.

Prevalence of Radioactive Particles: Private Wells at Higher Risk

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for radionuclides in city treated drinking water, but if you are a well water user you are at a much higher risk for radioactive contamination. In a study conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on radioactive particles in well water, the most abundant element above the EPA health threshold was radon, appearing in 65% of wells. Uranium was present in only 4% of the wells– which makes sense because radon is produced as uranium decays.

Signs that You Have Radioactive Particles in Your Water

Unfortunately, there are no obvious signs of radioactive particles. The only way to identify radon and uranium in your water is through testing. As a company that tests water, we’ve made this pretty easy–our essential test and advanced well water tests include uranium testing, we offer a specific test for radon, and we’ve developed a full radiation test that measures Gross Alpha and Gross Beta particles.

How do radioactive elements in water affect my health?

Unfortunately, the effects from radioactive particles in water can cause cancer and even be fatal. While our skin can protect us against alpha particles in the environment, exposure to radiation through water is particularly dangerous because radioactive elements damage tissues and organs.

Radioactive particles cause damage by breaking chemical bonds essential to our body’s functioning. Changing bonds in a molecule drastically alters its ability to function. Radioactive particles can cause cells in our body to die or slow down their reproduction. If a group of cells crucial to bodily function dies, the effects can be fatal.

After the bonds of normal cells in the body are broken, they release electrons. This can create a chain reaction that can eventually impact DNA molecules. Mutations are consequent to DNA damage, which lead to cancer. And, if germ (sex) cells are mutated, the cancer can be transmitted to children long after the initial exposure. The results of a study done in Iowa show that towns with radium-226 present in their water supply had higher rates of lung, bladder, and breast cancer.

How to protect yourself from Radioactive Particles in Water

Treatment

There are two primary treatment options for radioactive particles in water–carbon filters and ion exchange:

  • Carbon filters are one option for removing radium and strontium from drinking water. However, if radon is also present the filter must be changed very frequently–carbon can adsorb radon and lead to higher radiation exposure if radon is left to build up. As radon particles accumulate, they may fall out of the filter and back into the water stream.
  • Ion exchange can be used to treat uranium. However, ion exchange creates backwash that contains high concentrations of radionuclides, which makes disposal a concern.

Ultimately, the type of treatment you choose depends on what type of radiation problem you have.

Test Before You Treat

Though these health effects may be frightening, they can be prevented or at least mitigated.  Tap Score offers a Full Radiation Water Test to measures alpha and beta particles as well as a specific Radon Test to help you determine if you are at risk. We’ll also help you choose the right treatment options if you discover a problem. Picking the right filter matters to ensure you properly treat your water.

Have more questions? Feel free to email us at hello@simplewater.us! 

Sources: 

https://ehss.energy.gov/ohre/roadmap/achre/intro_9.html

https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/116/6/924/189051

https://www.wqpmag.com/radiation-water

https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/radionuclides-rule

https://www.circleofblue.org/2011/world/water-testing-reveals-trace-elements-exceed-health-standards-in-20-percent-of-wells/



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