Home / Bountiful Water Podcast: Radium

Welcome to the Bountiful Water Podcast.

I'm your host Jon Briggs.

For today's podcast, I'd like to say a few words about municipal water departments and the notices that they send out the bountiful Water Podcast received its name from the simple reality that I live in Bountiful, Utah.

A few days ago I opened a letter from our local water department. It was titled "Public Notice." Directly below that pretty generic title was a notice that I knew was going to scare people. It informed us that they have found elevated levels of radium in one of the city's wells.

The next sentence is service that this is not an emergency. I immediately headed to the lab; I had a feeling we were going to be getting some calls. One time when I was much younger, I dialed my home phone number, and my dad answered. In an attempt to immediately reassure him I said, "Dad, before anything else I want you to know that everyone is alive so don't panic."

Of course, Dad nearly had a heart attack as every horrible thing he could imagine immediately became a possibility, and he started thinking about it. It seems that the notice the city center had a similar effect on people.

RETEGO Labs is in fact a water lab, and we consult with the local water department. So we posted on social media, hoping to reassure citizens that it was not as big a deal as it sounded and anyone who wanted could contact us.

It didn't work.

People were scared by the notice. The only thing they heard was radioactive and cancer, and then it looked like the city had delayed their response. Not surprising that people got nervous about this. Those are pretty scary things. We did get some calls. One of those calls was a request from Channel 2 News to be interviewed.

We answered people's questions the best we could in the interview that was on the news last night.

With all that said, I thought a podcast, putting all this in perspective, would be useful.

[Here's some background information]

So, in 1972 a law appeared on the books called the Clean Water Act. It was an important piece of legislation intended to ensure that the nation's water supplies would remain unpolluted. The Clean Water Act has been changed and amended several times over the years. One of those amendments identified 29 specific pollutants to be monitored. The idea is that those in charge of public water supplies would test and notify people if elevated levels were found.

Now I call these pollutants, but that implies that something is getting in the water that shouldn't be there. It does identify those types of things, but many of the things on the list are naturally occurring in our water sources. Basically, the list identifies hazards.

Now, a hazard is something that could cause people harm or injury. Just because a hazard is identified doesn't mean it automatically will hurt you. It's simply something that you should be aware of.

A good way to think about it is this: If you go to the Grand Canyon and stand on the edge of one of those amazing cliffs, you'll find yourself behind a railing. Now, obviously, a cliff with 1000 foot drop is hazardous. So to keep people safe we put up a railing or maybe a fence to keep people away from the edge. Those that are in charge of that had to decide how close to the edge the railings should be installed. Part of managing the park is to walk along those paths and make sure that the railing is sturdy and it's secure. If they notice a loose railing, they immediately block the area off and repair the railing.

Now, in the case of the notice we received from the water department, one of the cliffs or hazards they monitor is radium. When the EPA decided how close to the cliff the railings should be installed, they didn't want to take any chances. So they set the detection levels requiring intervention at a level high enough that a water department to get ahead of it well before there was any sort of problem.

It's kind of like the Rangers at the Grand Canyon installing the railing 10 miles from the edge, just to be sure. You'd have to walk a long way before you'd be in any real danger. That's what we have here in the notice. It's an alert the railing that says do something about this.

So with all that in mind, what should you know about the notice.

Okay, many people have been questioning the timing of the notice.They assume that since the first date mentioned is June 15, Bountiful must have been sitting on the information since then. That's not when they knew there were elevated levels of radium, that was simply when the sample was taken. It takes a long time to get results from a regular lab. In fact, they're still waiting to get results back from a lab that they sent out in July, really, they're been waiting that long.

Now some tests could be expedited, but there's certain tests that just take a lot of time to process correctly. When they know for sure that there's an issue, they immediately send out a notice now, even if they wanted to, they couldn't wait. It's against the law. Part of the EPA regulations for water are strict notification guidelines with heavy penalties for not following the guidelines. The notice went out very quickly and well within the required EPA timeline. The notice was specifically about radium 226 and radium 228, which are naturally occurring radioactive materials.

What do I mean by naturally occurring?

We get our water from deep aquifers through wells that we drill as well as some surface water from things like rivers and reservoirs. One of the elements the water comes in contact with is radium, and that's how radium enters the water supply it's natural, that's how it got there. But that doesn't really answer why there's more than normal. So the elevated levels that they saw are most likely due to our current extreme drought conditions. When the water level in the well drops, the concentration of many of the dissolved minerals goes up. The EPA sets the maximum contaminant level well below levels that would have had any observable health effects.

Setting the limits that low allows the limit to function like an alert so something can be done well before there's any problem. It's like the example of setting the clip railing 10 miles from the edge, but also installing an alert when someone crosses the railing. It's early enough that there's plenty of time to handle things before there's a real problem. Once Bountiful City found more than the limit, they immediately took the well offline to determine what to do about it.

Now, Bountiful City's water supply and distribution system probably could be best described as a managed mix of water, they manage and mix the water. That's exactly what they're doing here. Currently they only use the wells to add water to other reservoirs, so that we'll have enough water in those reservoirs.

This is the plan that actually was recommended by the state and Bountiful is following that recommendation. What we really need is to have a winter with a lot of snow and a lot of snowpack in the mountains. A lot of snow and adequate snowpack is really going to be the long-term solution, because that is what's going to raise the water levels in those wells and minimize the risk. So again, the reason that we decided to go ahead and put up this podcast, even though it's short, is to let people know that everything is going to be okay, and that people do not need to be overly worried about what they found in this particular well, and also to let you know what they're doing about it.

I know that people are concerned about health risks. I know that people are concerned about what might be in their water, and that's a real concern. If you're really concerned about avoiding risks from the water you drink, listen to my last podcast.

In that podcast, I discussed something that is potentially a serious health crisis that no one seems to want to talk about. There are things you should be worried about. But what was in that letter that's not one of them, I totally understand if you're concerned, and you just want the radium gone, there are simple ways to remove that. 

[To hear more from Jon, click here!]