Industry Insights

When the Water Supply Is Radioactive: Measuring Radium in Water Samples

June 5, 2018

As well-known as radium is for its harmful effects — the Radium Girls might come to mind — the idea of widespread water contamination can be a scary one. But it’s a reality, albeit generally at levels below those likely to cause cancer and birth defects. A recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that 170 million people in all 50 states are getting their water from a source contaminated with detectable levels of radium. Some exceeded public health guidelines, and in 27 states, water supplies were found to exceed legal limits.

Radium 226 and 228 are naturally occurring elements, but they naturally occur harmlessly deep underground. It’s usually the extraction of energy resources, particularly uranium mining, oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), that brings them to the surface. Fracking, which now accounts of half of U.S. oil production and two-thirds of natural gas production, generates both valuable resources like oil or gas and less-welcome output like contaminated wastewater. Producing one gallon of raw crude oil, for example, generates eight gallons of wastewater on average. Fracking produces wastewater that brings up that naturally occurring radium and can lead to contamination of our water systems with harmful substances.

Young Chul Choi, Ph.D., associate director of SR’s Industrial Water Practice

While technology is being explored that could treat contaminated wastewater at the mining site, development and implementation of that technology remains in the future. Until then, detecting and monitoring radium in the water system is the only way to protect the public from the dangers of contamination. Water samples have to be tested for radium in its numerous forms and oxidation states to determine the most effective remediation technique. And once the affected water has been treated and discharged back into the greater water source, that source has to be tested again to make sure nothing is accumulating.

The traditional approach to measuring radium contamination relies on alpha spectrometry, which is time consuming, labor intensive and slow to produce results. And the detection limits of traditional methods are greater than health-based limits, meaning that water analysis can show zero radioactivity even when radioactive elements are present at unsafe levels.

Southern Research (SR) uses a proprietary method coupling HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) with an Agilent 8800 Triple Quad ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry) for faster, more accurate measurement. Large water samples are passed through a column to isolate the contaminant for testing, and a combination of highly sensitive, leading-edge instrumentation and expertise honed over the course of a decade allow us to quantify and speciate even trace levels of radium. With the benefit of precise, accurate data, our clients are able to determine the best treatment solution for their water source, and then return for further analysis after treatment to ensure that efforts were successful.

SR has been offering state-of-the-art environmental analytical services to commercial and government clients since 2008. But we also are at the forefront of water-efficient, energy-efficient, cost-efficient technology for energy production. “We have experts on the energy side and the water side,” said Young Chul Choi, Ph.D., associate director of SR’s Industrial Water Practice. “We’re one of the few entities that maintains expertise in both energy consumption and water quality — the smallest amount of water you can contaminate when producing energy, and the smallest amount of energy you can expend on producing clean water. It goes back and forth, and we’re interested in both aspects.”

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