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Uranium found in half of America's public water systems, study finds

Columbia University researchers discovered tens of millions of Americans are at risk of having dangerous levels of uranium in their tap water.
Uranium found in half of America's public water systems, study finds
Posted at 1:35 PM, Apr 21, 2023

The town of Hastings rises up from the arid Nebraska prairie. It's the birthplace of Kool-Aid, which you can't have without water. So, people in Hastings take their water seriously. It is a precious resource that is not to be wasted.

Marty Stange is the environmental director for the city, where about 25,000 people live. He's worked for Hastings Utilities for 33 years, where the city runs tests to make sure all of the water there is safe to drink.

"We follow all the state and federal guidelines for that testing," Stange said.

A few years back they decided to check some of the areas that the city wasn't drawing water from yet, but would be in the coming years.

That's when they made a discovery.

"We just want to do enough of a scan to make sure that we haven't missed something," Stange said. "Then, all of a sudden, we started seeing uranium levels in areas that were higher."

Tests showed uranium — the radioactive element most commonly associated with all things nuclear — at levels 10 times the Environmental Protection Agency's allowable amount in the water supply the city would need.

"We were going to have to do something that was a surprise to us — we needed to deal with uranium as well," Stange said.

SEE MORE: Cleaning up our nation's waterways is proving harder than expected

More than 1,400 miles away, Dr. Anne Nigra and graduate student researchers gather around her office at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. 

They're working on the next steps in their research, which is building off of their recent study of uranium found in public water systems across America.

"Our findings suggest that, in fact, uranium is an under-recognized and underappreciated contaminant in our public water systems," Nigra said.

Researchers analyzed the most recent EPA data and found that about half of the public water systems in America contain uranium.

A map they compiled shows those levels county by county: the darker the color, the higher the uranium level in water. Areas in bright white indicate "no data available."

In many parts of the U.S., uranium is naturally occurring in the ground, which is how it seeps into the water. Nigra said what is considered a safe level of uranium is complicated.

"The current regulatory standard is 30 micrograms per liter," she said. "But because uranium is a carcinogen, EPA says that there is no safe level of exposure to uranium."

The regulatory standard allows 30 micrograms of uranium per liter – which is not just based on public health, but also on the cost and feasibility of removing it from water.

In Hastings, Nebraska, their tests of the untreated water showed uranium levels ten times that amount — 300 micrograms per liter. However, they're not alone.

"Fifty percent of public water systems are detecting uranium," Nigra said. "We find the highest concentrations in communities that are categorized as Hispanic/Latino, and we find high concentrations, also, in parts of the Midwest and in the Southwest."

Kevin Patterson is one of the researchers working with Nigra. He's from Farmington, New Mexico — in the Four Corners region, where the water also has high concentrations of uranium.

"A lot of my mother's family is from the Arizona side of the reservation," Patterson said. "Particularly, my grandfather was a uranium mine worker."

He's focusing on trying to understand the potential health effects of uranium in water.

"Understanding this chronic low dose exposure of uranium, particularly through drinking water, is something that is a little bit less understood," Patterson said.

That is the next step in research that Nigra and her team are working on.

"We are investigating kidney disease, which we know is associated with uranium exposure. We're investigating cardiovascular disease, which is unclear at this point," she said. "We're investigating diabetes — also unclear. And we're investigating birth outcomes — also unclear."

Back in the town that brought Kool-Aid to the world, the city of Hastings looked into how much it would cost to install a system to remove uranium from water.

"We originally had anticipated it would be $72 million for a population 25,000 people," Stange said.

SEE MORE: Why is our water quality in question?

It was a high price. So, they designed and built their own treatment system using skimming and dilution. It comes at a fraction of the original cost — about $15 million, with a state grant chipping in $4 million. Water customers there paid a 10% rate increase over seven years.

"It's tough. It takes a lot of communication. And unfortunately, some people are going to say, 'Well, you're hurting my pocketbook,'" Stange said. "It's 90% education, 10% doing something — and it's absolutely true."

He said other communities reach out to them all the time to learn about how they designed their cost-effective system of addressing the uranium in water.

"Quite frankly, nobody even thought about checking it here and now, we're doing that," Stange said, "But if we take the data, look at it, don't go screaming through the night — we can try to manage these things and we can get that done."

The Columbia University researchers put together a searchable database, so anyone could look up their town or city and see the uranium levels in water there.

You can find the levels in your community by choosing "uranium" under the contaminant drop-down menu, as well as the year range of 2000-2011. You can then type in your town or county name into the search box for the results.

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