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Tuesday, March 14, 2000
SHADOW CAST ON DRINKING WATER IN SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY
A study finds half of the 88 wells tested exceed the federal radiation standard, increasing the chance of contracting bone or sinus cancer.
By JACK KASKEY Staff Writer, (609) 272-7213
NEW BRUNSWICK -- Radiation-contaminated drinking water is far more prevalent in southern New Jersey than previously known, scientists said Monday as they discussed a new study that found unhealthful levels of radiation in half the tested wells.
Water that exceeds the federal radiation standard is expected to cause fatal bone or sinus cancer in an estimated one out of every 10,000 people who drink the contaminated water for life, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The cancer rate increases the more the standard is exceeded.
The new study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection found about 50 percent of 88 wells tested in seven southern New Jersey counties exceed the EPA's maximum contamination level for total radiation. That's more than three times the contamination rate the USGS reported in June 1998.
Lead author Zoltan Szabo, a USGS hydrologist based in Trenton, discussed the study Monday at the Geological Society of America's northeastern section annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick.
"This obviously is a major cause for concern," Szabo told the gathering. "A good portion of the state could be affected."
The reason so much radiation now is being found in the region's drinking-water supplies is that scientists only recently discovered how to properly test for it, he said.
Until a few years ago, a water sample typically would sit on a shelf for weeks or months before testing. Those tests might find radiation from Radium-226 and -228, two naturally occurring elements, but entirely miss radiation from Radium-224, which turns out to be the biggest source of radiation in many area water supplies, Szabo said. That's because Radium-224 loses half its radioactivity every 3.6 days, so tests for it must be completed promptly.
The new study tested water for radioactivity within 48 hours after each sample was drawn from the ground, more closely reflecting the time frame that people drink water, Szabo said.
The study shows radioactivity in the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer system is far greater than previously estimated, Szabo said.
One part of the study examined 20 randomly selected wells in southern New Jersey, only one of which had previously violated the federal radiation standard. But when water was drawn and tested within 48 hours, 13 of the wells exceeded the federal standard of 15 picocuries per liter, Szabo said.
The study examined another 68 wells that previously had not been tested for radiation, bringing the total study size to 88 wells. In all, about half the samples exceeded 15 picocuries of total radiation per liter, he said. The highest reading was 77 picocuries per liter.
The study, with site-specific details, is expected to be published early this summer, Szabo said. The study examined public and private wells in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean and Salem counties.
Radioactivity is most problematic in private and industrial wells, which tend to be shallower, drawing water that tends to be acidic (under 5 pH), Szabo said. That finding was confirmed by several other researchers presenting papers Monday.
Nitrate-based fertilizers that leach into the water supply also may increase radioactivity in aquifers, according to a paper by Jeannette Ogden of the USGS with scientists from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township.
Nitrates and acidity help free radium from its natural bonds in the soil, allowing it to dissolve into the surrounding water, researchers said.
Municipal water departments and large water companies typically draw water from very deep wells, providing consumers with relatively radiation-free water, Szabo said. That's not the case with all public water systems, however.
Officials last year completed testing of the state's 615 public community water systems under the new 48-hour procedure, with excessive radiation found in seven water systems in Cumberland and Atlantic counties, according to the DEP.
Systems exceeding the federal standard include Bridgeton, Hammonton and Vineland, which together serve more than 61,700 people. Officials at some contaminated water systems are planning to drill deeper wells, while others are installing ion exchange equipment to remove the radiation.
Community water systems in Cape May and southern Ocean counties met federal standards, according to the DEP.
Copyright ()) 2000 South Jersey Publishing Co.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 14, 2000