Radium Standards Too Strict in Illinois, State Agency Says

Published July 1, 2005

Citing updated scientific information, the Illinois Pollution Control Board has proposed loosening the state’s acceptable limit for radium in surface water.

Since 1973, Illinois has limited radium to 1 picocurie of radium-226 per liter of surface water and 3.75 picocurie of radium-228 per liter of suface water. Both radium standards are far more stringent than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 5 picocurie per liter limit for both forms of radium.

No Human Harm Noted

Marcia Willhite, who heads the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Bureau of Water, told the April 8 Chicago Tribune the agency proposed rescinding the more stringent standard because there was no scientific evidence it benefitted human health.

Radium is formed when uranium and thorium decay in the environment. Almost all aspects of the natural environment, including soil, water, rocks, coal, plants, and food, contain some radium. According to the U.S. EPA, “Since radium is present at relatively low levels in the natural environment, everyone has some level of exposure from it.”

However, radium exists at greater levels in deep bedrock aquifers, where it collects after settling. When water is drawn from deep water wells, the radium enters the surface environment through waste-water systems.

Science Validates New Standard

While vowing to vigorously protect the environment and public health from excessive radium, the Illinois Pollution Control Board conceded science has vindicated the U.S. EPA’s 5 picocurie standard.

“As the record became more developed, the board’s decision was just based on facts,” Illinois Pollution Control Board attorney Amy Antoniolli told the Tribune.

“We didn’t want to be in a situation where we would unnecessarily require controls for waste-water treatment plants to make their discharge cleaner than drinking water,” Willhite told the Tribune.

“Illinois should be applauded for realizing that science does not justify the old standard. Indeed, it is not clear that even the federal standard is justified,” said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

“The risk from radium in drinking water is highly overrated; it poses little human threat,” said Burnett. “Resources devoted to obtaining an unnecessarily strict federal standard come at significant cost to human welfare, which is better served when scarce resources are directed to more pressing issues.”

Old Standard Costly

Many communities, particularly in northern Illinois, have spent considerable amounts of money to meet the old radium standard.

According to the Elburn Herald, for example, the small village of Elburn has had to raise approximately $2 million to pay for a radium removal system. To cover the expense, the village raised its water prices by 34.5 percent, from $2 per 100 cubic feet of water to $2.69 per 100 cubic feet.

In 2003 alone, the town of Knoxville (population 3,110) borrowed more than $400,000; the town of Bushnell (pop. 3,166) borrowed $1.2 million; the village of Sugar Grove (pop. 5,418) borrowed $1.3 million; the town of Spring Valley (pop. 5,378) borrowed $3 million; and the town of Lockport (pop. 17,923) borrowed $5.8 million to pay for radium removal systems.

The per-person cost of the new systems ranged from $130 to $560.

“Any time a state looks at a program and realizes they have been wasting resources, you have got to shout, ‘hallelujah,'” Burnett said. “This is one of those instances where government has seen the light, and overcome fear mongering and propaganda campaigns. That is really rare.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.