Local News

Radiation In Colorado Drinking Water

Target 13 Investigates Finds Contaminated Groundwater

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Depending on where you live in Colorado, your drinking water could be contaminated with radiation.

Target 13 Investigates reviewed 21,027 water tests from across the state, and found radiation that can cause cancer is widespread in the groundwater.

More than 50 drinking water suppliers have had so much radiation in their water they violated the government contaminant levels at least once over the past 10 years.

One of the hot zones is east of Pueblo -- the lower Arkansas Valley. Some of the larger towns, like La Junta, Lamar and Rocky Ford have been able to lower their radiation below the legal standard, but are still above the safe health standard of 0.

In your drinking water the Environment Protection Agency allows a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 5 Picocuries per liter (pCi/L) for radium. 15 pCi/L for Gross Alpha, and 30 Microgram per liter (ug/l).

Bottom line, that's how many radionuclides, that emit radiation, the government allows in your tap water. You should know the EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) is zero for those contaminants, because radionuclides are not considered safe when they get inside your body.

The EPA website states the MCL is set "using the best available treatment technology and taking cost into consideration."

"We know these things can cause cancer when in contact with human cells," explained Dr. John Spear, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who's studied radionuclides for 20 years.

He said the EPA's MCL is a legal enforceable limit and it does lower the cancer risk for most people, but no scientist will say the water you're drinking is safe if it tests above zero.

Target 13: What would happen if they're drinking water that's in violation (of EPA's MCL)?

Dr. Spear: If they're drinking water that's in violation they're going to have much higher chance.

Target 13: "If they're drinking water at a 1?

Dr. Spear: If they're drinking water that's at a 1 they're going to have a chance, if they're drinking water way above the standard they're going to have a better chance.

Target 13: Of getting cancer.

Dr. Spear: Of getting cancer.

Even the EPA states in the December 2000 Federal Register when it set the radionuclides final rules, "a single alpha passing through a cell is sufficient to induce a mutational event."

The town of Swink, east of Pueblo, is in violation of the EPA's MCL. The town sends out public notices when water tests show they're in violation, which happens roughly once a year. The last notice sent was on page 3 of the town newsletter.

We talked many people in Swink who clearly did not understand that their drinking water violates the EPA's contaminant level for radionuclides.

One person said, "they (town leaders) told us it's got lead, but I never heard anything about what you just said."

Target 13: "About radioactivity?"

Swink resident: "Yeah, I never heard of that."

Most we talked to know there's something in the waterm but not much else about it.

Target 13: "Do you understand exactly what the radioactive material is, or if there is any?"

Resident: "Uh. That I don't know."

One woman told us, "I'm sure a lot of people drink it because we've been told it's acceptable."

We also found the restaurant in Swink serves contaminated tap water to customers, and uses it in the coffee and ice machine. There are no public notices to let you know the water violates the EPA rule, there don't have to be because it's not against the law.

The person in charge of the drinking water system in Swink never called us back.

We also visited Mountain Shadows in Pueblo County - it's just east of Beulah. The owner lives in Aurora and told us he sent the public notices, but residents we talked to say that's not true.

"They have done nothing to notify us," one man said.

A woman told us she's lived there 15 years and never heard about the radionuclides, "They (Owner/Manager) told us it was fine... I have a 3 year old son, that's what concerns me."

Target 13 Investigates took what we found to the state health department, which ordered the owner of Mountain Shadows to send people living here another notification about the radionuclides.

Ron Falco manages our state's drinking water program and said the woman in Swink who was told the water's acceptable was given incorrect information.

"That information provided to her was clearly not correct," said Falco, "and we would happily correct that information if anybody contacted us."

Falco does not think the notification process, which the state enforces, needs to be broadened. "I think it does go far enough," he told us, "but it's important that it be implemented properly, and we stand read to help."

He also says he doesn't think businesses serving radionuclide-contaminated tap water need to tell people it's contaminated.

He cites the EPA in saying there's a 1 in 10,000 chance someone drinking contaminated water over a lifetime will develop a deadly cancer. Falco thinks drinking a little bit of the contaminated water would be fine.

However, the EPA states it takes only one alpha particle to cause the mutation of a cell.

The EPA states, "The probability of a radiation-caused cancer or genetic effect is related to the total amount of radiation accumulated by an individual." But the EPA does not take into account the total amount radiation-emitting particles, such as radium 224 and lead 210.

Also, Target 13's review of Colorado's drinking water tests for radionuclides shows many water suppliers would be out of compliance with the EPA's mcl for gross alpha, if the EPA did not require radon and uranium be removed from the gross alpha count.

The EPA's under-reporting of the total amount of radiation in the country's drinking water supply does raise red flags in parts of the scientific community.

Target 13 is still looking into this for you and we'll get you more as soon as we can.

Right now you can search your water system for EPA violations


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