Uranium: What you need to know

Naturally occurring radioactive substances are frequently found in groundwater—including uranium, a heavy metal. It exists in almost all rocks and soils. Everyone ingests or inhales small amounts of natural uranium daily.

Is my private well at risk?
The presence of uranium in groundwater depends on rock and soil types. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey study of groundwater used by residential wells showed the highest concentrations occur most often in Western basin-fill aquifers and in crystalline-rock aquifers in the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast.

Geochemical conditions can affect the degree to which naturally occurring uranium enters groundwater. Such conditions include dissolved oxygen and carbonate alkalinity, which contribute to higher levels of uranium in California’s Central Valley and the Newark Basin sediments of northern New Jersey, for example. Generally, uranium is more likely to be present in granite or alkaline sandstone and shale bedrock.

Uranium presence also can result from human actions such as uranium mining and milling and use in some phosphate fertilizers.

What is the measurement of uranium?
The Maximum Contaminant Level for uranium is 30 micrograms per liter (30 parts per billion). However, uranium may be accompanied by other radioactive contaminants, including radon: a gas produced by the decay of radium—a decay byproduct of uranium. Ask a certified drinking water testing lab about appropriate tests for your area to accurately measure risk related to uranium—alone or in combination with other radioactive elements.
What are the health risks from uranium?
Little information is available on the chronic human health effects of exposure to environmental uranium. Very high levels may cause acute kidney failure and death. Lesser exposure can increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and internal irradiation. Generally, health effects are due to uranium’s properties as a heavy metal more than radiation.
How can I address unsafe levels of uranium in my water?
If you are installing a well system in an area known to have problematic levels of uranium in groundwater—discuss this issue with your water well system professional. Sometimes reduction of uranium can be achieved by isolating the well open interval from zones where the uranium level is problematic.

For an existing well, ask the water well contractor about retrofitting the well to bypass water intake zones with higher levels of uranium. Another option is water treatment from a qualified water treatment system provider.

Accurate test results from a certified drinking water testing lab are key to getting appropriate water treatment. A gross alpha test—typically around $30—serves as a preliminary screening that determines whether additional testing is advisable. If results show 15 picocuries per liter or greater, a test for uranium is recommended, which can be twice as expensive. Water samples should be taken carefully according to lab instructions.

Water treatment options for uranium
Reverse osmosis (RO)—RO can remove up to 90 percent of uranium and treat a variety of other water quality issues. Typically, RO is a point-of-use (POU) device installed where the water is used (i.e., under the kitchen sink). It also can be used at the point-of-entry (POE) into the house so that all water is treated.

With POU RO units, a minimum three gallons of wastewater is discharged for every gallon of treated water produced. Since low concentrations of soluble minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese can foul an RO unit, some pretreatment device may be needed.

Maintenance involves replacement of filters and membranes. Filters should be handled carefully and disposed of properly due to potentially high uranium concentrations.

Ion exchange—This involves a physical/chemical process in which water passes through a specialized resin, inducing an exchange of ions removing uranium. Ion exchange is typically used in POE treatment systems.

Maintenance can involve replacement or regeneration of media and cartridges. Spent media and cartridges must be handled carefully and disposed of properly due to potentially high uranium concentrations.

Distillation—Distillation, involving evaporating water and condensing the vapor, requires significant heat energy and cooling capacity. It is generally used in POU systems. Residue disposal must be done according to applicable regulations. Filters should be handled carefully and disposed of properly due to high uranium concentrations.

There are voluntary performance testing programs for water treatment systems, such as those operated by NSF International and the Water Quality Association—although there may not be systems listed that have been evaluated for effectiveness in dealing with uranium. Your water well system contractor can determine whether a system has been independently performance tested.

Treatment costs
The cost for POU RO, ion exchange, and distillation treatment systems is about $500 to $1,000 with annual operating costs of roughly $100 a year. The cost for POE treatment, available for RO and ion exchange systems, is roughly $3,000 in equipment costs and $500 a year for operating costs.