EPA Proposes Shocking Thousand-Fold Increase in Radioactivity Allowed in Drinking Water

John LaForge

Mothers receive bottles of water at a distribution office in the Adachi ward of Tokyo, Japan, on March 24, 2011. Japanese beverage makers faced renewed pressure to raise bottled-water production after radiation from the Fukushima radiation disaster contaminated Tokyo’s water supply. Photographer: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Mothers receive bottles of water at a distribution office in the Adachi ward of Tokyo, Japan, on March 24, 2011. Japanese beverage makers faced renewed pressure to raise bottled-water production after radiation from the Fukushima radiation disaster contaminated Tokyo’s water supply. Photographer: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

 

On June 6, the US Environmental Protection Agency quietly issued proposals to allow radioactive contamination in drinking water at concentrations vastly greater than now allowed under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The new Protective Action Guides (PAGs) would permit radiation exposures equivalent to 250 chest X-rays a year. Environmental groups called the proposal “shocking” and “egregious.”
The new PAGs would allow the general population to drink water hundreds to thousands of times more radioactive than is now legal. For example, radioactive iodine-131 has a current limit of 3 pico-curies per liter (pCi/L), in water, but the new guidance would allow 10,350 (pCi/L), 3,450 times higher. For strontium-90, which causes leukemia, the current limit is 8 pCi/L; the newly proposed allowable concentration is 7,400 pCi/L, a 925-fold increase.
“All of this is extraordinary, since EPA has recently accepted the National Academy of Sciences’ most current risk estimates for radiation exposure, indicating radiation is considerably more dangerous per unit dose than previously believed,” said D’Arrigo of Nuclear Information and Resource Service (nirs.org) on June 7. “Pushing allowable concentrations of radioactivity in drinking water up orders of magnitude above the longstanding Safe Drinking Water Act levels goes in exactly the opposite direction than the official radiation risk estimates go,” D’Arrigo said. In view of the National Academy findings, radiation exposure standards should be strengthened, rather than weakened.
“Clean water is essential for health. Just like lead, radiation -- when ingested in small amounts -- is very hazardous to our health. It is inconceivable that EPA could now quietly propose allowing enormous increases in radioactive contamination with no action to protect the public, even if concentrations are a thousand times higher than under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said Dr. Catherine Thomasson, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The Bush Administration in its last days unsuccessfully put forward similar proposals, which the incoming Obama Administration pulled back. Now, in the waning months of the Obama era, the EPA’s radiation office is trying again.
“These levels are even higher than those proposed by the Bush Administration -- really unprecedented and shocking,” said D’Arrigo.
The Bush Administration proposal for strontium-90 was 6,650 pCi/L; the new proposal is 7,400 pCi/L. For iodine-131, the Bush proposal was 8,490 pCi/L; the new proposal is 10,350 pCi/L. For cesium-137, the proposal was 13,600 pCi/L; Obama “beats” Bush with a value of 16,570 pCi/L.
All radionuclides can cause cancer and other health and reproductive problems; there is no completely safe level of exposure. Strontium-90 causes bone cancer and leukemia. Babies, children, and females are at greater risk than adult males.
PAGs apply not just to emergencies such as “dirty bombs,” or Fukushima-type nuclear power meltdowns, but also to any radiological release for which a protective action may be considered -- even a radio-pharmaceutical transport spill. The proposed drinking water PAG would apply not to the immediate phase after a release, but rather to the intermediate phase, after the release has been stabilized, and lasting up to several years thereafter.
Radiation doses (in rems) are calculated based on some measurements and many assumptions. Current Safe Drinking Water Act radiation limits are based on 4 millirems per year. The new PAGs would allow 500 millirems per year for the general population. A single chest X-ray gives about 2 millirems. Because of the way EPA is changing the definition of “dose,” for many radionuclides, the allowable concentration would be thousands, tens of thousands, and even millions of times higher than presently set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Internal EPA documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the EPA itself concluded that the proposed allowable concentration increases “would exceed MCLs [Maximum Contaminant Limits] by a factor of 100, 1000, and in two instances, 7 million.” The EPA’s internal analysis showed that for one radionuclide, “drinking a very small glass of water of approximately four ounces ... would result in an exposure that corresponds to a lifetime of drinking ... water ... at the MCL level.”
“Under these proposals, people would be forced to get the radiation equivalent of a chest X-ray 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for up to several years, with no medical benefit or informed consent, just from drinking water. This is immoral,” said D’Arrigo.

—The public has 45 days from when it is published in the Federal Register to comment to the EPA on the Protective Action Guides and stop this bailout off nuclear polluters. Check with website <NIRS.org> for details of where to write.

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