Gross Alpha Radiation, Uranium and Radium in Drinking Water

Gross alpha radiation is a type of energy released when certain radioactive elements decay or break down. For example, uranium and thorium are two radioactive elements found naturally in the Earth’s crust. Over billions of years, these elements slowly change form and produce “decay products” such as radium and polonium. During this change process, energy is released. Gross alpha radiation is one form of the energy released. As a result, gross alpha radiation can be found in your drinking water.

The amount of gross alpha radiation in water varies because the Earth’s bedrock contains varying amounts of radioactive elements. As radioactive elements decay, gross alpha radiation continues to be released into groundwater as positive ions called cations (e.g. radium 226 and 228), negative ions called anions (e.g. uranium), or as radiation with no charge.

Health Concerns: Are gross alpha radiation, uranium and radium harmful to my health?

Gross alpha radiation may cause health effects over time. Because gross alpha radiation loses energy rapidly and within a short distance, it does not pass through skin. It's not a hazard outside of the body. However, the radiation can be harmful if you eat, drink or breathe in something containing gross alpha radiation.

Over a long period of time and at elevated levels, radium increases the risk of bone cancer and uranium increases the risk of kidney damage. There are no immediate health risks or symptoms from drinking water that contains gross alpha radiation.

Testing: How do I know if gross alpha radiation, uranium or radium is in my water?

You cannot see, smell or taste gross alpha radiation or radioactive elements. Testing is the only way to know if they're in your water. The Health Department recommends testing your private water source for gross alpha radiation and uranium every five years.

Levels of uranium and radium in drinking water are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of Vermont. However, there may be more radioactive elements in your water. To account for this remaining radioactivity, the gross alpha level is also regulated. Public water systems in Vermont must keep the gross alpha radiation at or below the following maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) at each entry point of their distribution system:

  • Adjusted Gross Alpha = 15 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter)
  • Combined radium 226/228 = 5 pCi/L
  • Uranium = 0.020 mg/L (milligrams per liter)

Adjusted Gross Alpha (AGA) is a calculated value based on the gross alpha radiation and uranium result. If the AGA is above the MCL, the water system is notified, and a plan is made to find the source of the radiation and lower its level in the water. You can estimate the AGA, if you have the results for gross alpha and uranium, by using the AGA Calculator.

For private well owners, the Health Department recommends testing for gross alpha radiation and uranium every five years and following these recommendations:

  • If the AGA result is less than 5 pCi/L and the uranium result is less than 0.02 mg/L, no more testing or treatment is necessary. Retest again in five years.
  • If the uranium result is above 0.02 mg/L, but the AGA result is less than 5 pCi/L, consider treating for uranium (e.g. with reverse osmosis). Retest again in five years.
  • If the AGA result is above 5 pCi/L, but the uranium result is less than 0.02 mg/L, the high AGA level is likely caused by radium. Consider treating for radium (e.g. with a water softener), or testing for radium-226/228 to confirm the AGA level is due to radium and not other radioactive particles. Retest again in five years.
  • If the AGA result is above 5 pCi/L, and the uranium result is above 0.02 mg/L, the high AGA level is likely caused by radium. Consider treating for uranium (e.g. with reverse osmosis) and radium (e.g. with a water softener) or testing for radium-226/228 to confirm the AGA level is due to radium and not other radioactive particles. Retest again in five years.

Because gross alpha radiation causes cancer, any exposure to it will increase your risk of getting cancer. If you would like to lower or eliminate your exposure, consider treating your water for gross alpha radiation, even if it is under the MCL.

Order a test kit for gross alpha radiation or uranium

The radium-226/228 test is not offered at the Health Department Laboratory, but can be ordered from a certified drinking water lab. Find a list of certified drinking water labs

Treatment Options: Can I remove or lower the levels of gross alpha radiation, uranium or radium in my water?

Radioactive elements can be removed from drinking water. There are different treatments for different elements.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis treatment addresses all gross alpha radiation contaminants. It uses a synthetic membrane that allows water to go through but leaves radium, uranium and other gross alpha radiation contaminants behind. The membrane is continually rinsed. It is usually installed under the kitchen sink (point-of-use or POU), but can also be installed as a whole house system (point-of-entry or POE).

Cation Exchange Treatment

A conventional water softener (also called a cation exchange softener) can be used to reduce the level of radioactive ions with a positive charge, like radium. This treatment exchanges radium for sodium or potassium, which remains in the water. The radium is flushed away with the wastewater when the softener is cleaned. This type of treatment is typically installed as a POE system.

Anion Exchange Treatment

Anion exchange is a treatment like water softening, but uses a different media that exchanges the negatively charged radioactive ions, like uranium for chloride. This is also typically a POE system.

Your water may need to be treated for other water quality issues—such as hardness, iron, manganese and pH level—before it’s treated for radium or uranium. A water treatment professional will be able to determine which water treatment system is best for your water.

Re-test for gross alpha radiation after any treatment system is installed to make sure levels are below the MCL.

Financial Assistance: Is there funding available to help me pay for water system or treatment?

Vermont Wastewater and Potable Water Revolving Loan Fund

This program, also known as the On-site Loan Program, is available to certain Vermont residents for the repair or replacement of failed water supply and on-site wastewater systems. The On-site Loan Program is funded and administered by the Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation with loan underwriting and servicing provided by the Opportunities Credit Union in Winooski. Your drinking water supply has to be a failed system and you must be living in the residence on a year-round basis to be eligible. The family income cannot exceed 200% of the state median household income. For more information about eligibility and how to apply, call 802-461-6051 or visit the website.

The NeighborWorks Alliance of Vermont

The NeighborWorks Alliance is made up of five local organizations offering full affordable housing services for income-eligible individuals. You may qualify for help from this program if you need money to install a water treatment system, drill a well, or repair or replace your septic system. For more information on eligibility, contact the local NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center in your region.

Single Family Housing Repair Loans and Grants

This program offers loans and grants to exiting homeowners for well construction, repair and sealing. It's administered by the Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is for low-income families who live in a rural area or a community with a population of 25,000 or less. The family income cannot exceed 50% of the median county income. Individuals who are 62 years of age or older may qualify for a grant or a combination of a loan and grant. Younger applicants are eligible only for loans.

Burlington, South Burlington, Essex Junction, Winooski and parts of Colchester are ineligible for the program because of population. Even if your property is in an eligible area, your eligibility is still subject to income limits. For more information or to find out if your property is in an eligible area, call 802-828-6022 or visit the website.