Radium reality

Excessive amounts of Radium 226 and Radium 228 are in seven of nine wells of the DeKalb drinking water system. The Federal standard for Radium 226 and Radium 228 combined is 5.0 picocuries per liter. The radium readings for DeKalb’s wells range from 5.5 pCi/l on up to 14.4 pCi/l.

What is radium? The following information is obtained from a report on “Radium in Drinking Water” by the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety:

Radium 226 is a radioactive element produced by the decay of Uranium 238. Radium 226 is an alpha and gamma radiation emitter with a half-life of 1,622 years.

This means that after 1,622 years the amount of radiation it gives off is half of what it originally was. After another 1,622 years, the radiation is at one quarter of its original strength and 1,622 years later it is at one eighth, etc.

“Alpha” refers to very high-energy particles and “gamma” is similar to penetrating X-rays.

Radium 228 is not an alpha emitter like radium 226, but a low-energy beta emitter with a half-life of 6.7 years. However, Radium 228 breaks down later to another hazard, thorium 228, which does emit alpha particles and gamma rays.

Radium 228 is ingested in the drinking water and then later breaks down in the body to thorium 228 with a half-life of 1.9 years.

Radon, a cancer-causing gas, is also part of the decay chain which ends with lead. All of the radioactive elements discussed are recognized by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to be cancer-causing agents.

Radium is metabolized in the human body similarly to calcium. Therefore, radium collects in the bone and is called a “bone-seeker.”

Infants and young children are especially at high risk for higher absorption of radium and a higher retention of radium in the body.

There is also a biological half-life figure for radium in bone. For thorium 228 it is two years and for radium 226 it is 12 years.

There is a constant intake of these radioactive elements as water is being drunk daily. The average person ingests more than one quart of water daily.

The concise, readable report on “Radium in Drinking Water” by the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety is available to DeKalb residents by calling 758-0759.

Linda Lahey

DeKalb resident