Report: EPA Should Update Drinking Water Standard for Plutonium

The federally allowed level of drinking water contamination by plutonium-239, one of the ingredients of atomic bombs, and other radioactive materials with similar properties is 100 times too high, according to a report released on Aug. 3 by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). The report -- which raises concerns about contamination near the Nevada Test Site (located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas) and other states, called on EPA to set new standards that better protect human health.

According to EPA, people who live near nuclear weapons production or testing sites may have increased exposure to plutonium, primarily through particles in the air, but possibly from water as well. Plants growing in contaminated soil can absorb small amounts of plutonium.

EPA sets health-based limits on radiation in air, soil and water. Using its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA limits the amount of radiation in community water systems by establishing Maximum Contaminant Levels. MCLs limit the amount of activity from alpha emitters, like plutonium, to 15 picocuries per liter (a picocurie is one one-trillionth (1/1,000,000,000,000) of a curie).

The group claims that EPA's MCL for plutonium and other alpha-emitting long-lived transuranic radionuclides is one hundred times too lax because it is based on obsolete, 1950s science. "The current scientific assessment of plutonium indicates that the dose to human bones is far greater than was estimated at the time standards were published," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of IEER and author of the new report, Bad to the Bone: Analysis of the Federal Maximum Contaminant Levels for Plutonium-239 and Other Alpha-Emitting Transuranic Radionuclides in Drinking Water.

The current MCL for plutonium and related radioactive pollutants was set in 1976, the group said. According to the report, advances over the past three decades in the scientific understanding of the behavior in the body of plutonium and other alpha-emitting, long-lived transuranic radionuclides shows that such radionuclides concentrate near the bone surface and deliver a dose per unit intake that is far higher than previously estimated. The scientific research has been published by the EPA in its guidance documents. Yet, the IEER report demonstrates that the science has not been incorporated into the MCLs for these radionuclides.

"The EPA is required to review and update its rules for the protection of public health on a regular basis," said Geoff Fettus, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "This IEER study shows that the EPA should act with alacrity to tighten standards to protect public health and remain within the intent and spirit of the drinking water regulations. NRDC will work with IEER and other organizations in the coming year to make sure it does so."

IEER, joined by NRDC, Clean Water Action and other groups, transmitted the report to Cynthia Dougherty, director of the EPA groundwater and drinking water office, with a letter urging the agency to change the combined drinking water limit for alpha-emitting, long-lived transuranic radionuclides from 15 picocuries per liter to 0.15 picocuries per liter.

The groups also asked the EPA to incorporate the IEER analysis into the agency's next regulatory review of the radionuclides portion of the Safe Drinking Water Act, slated for 2006.

"The urgency that the EPA implement this change derives from the fact that long-lived radioactive waste, including plutonium, is being cemented in tanks or otherwise left in the vicinity of crucial water resources," said Makhijani.

States with water resources that may be impacted by large amounts of Department of Energy (DOE) plutonium wastes include South Carolina, Georgia, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Nevada. According to the report, water resources such as the Savannah River, which forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia, the Snake River Plain Aquifer in Southern Idaho, and the Columbia River are at risk from wastes containing alpha-emitting, long-lived transuranic radionuclides.

EPA officials stated that the agency reviews the standard every six years. In an Associated Press article, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said that the agency is presented with significant information not previously made available, the agency does not see a compelling reason to change the rule.

The report can be downloaded in full from IEER's Web site at http://www.ieer.org/reports/badtothebone/index.html (HTML version) or http://www.ieer.org/reports/badtothebone/fullrpt.pdf (PDF version).

EPA offers an information page about plutonium, including an overview of human health effects, at http://www.epa.gov/radiation/radionuclides/plutonium.htm.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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