Radioactive Elements Found in the Environment (Nature)

Radioactive materials give off a form of energy that travels in waves or particles. This energy is called radiation. When a person comes in contact with radiation, the energy gets into the body. For example, when a person has an x-ray, they are exposed to radiation.

The following radioactive elements are found nauturally in the environment.

Alpha Radiation

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 two elements slowly change form and produce decay products such as radium and radon. During this change process, energy is released. One form of this energy is alpha radiation.

Learn more about alpha radiation in drinking water


Uranium is a radioactive element that can be found in soil, air, water, rocks, plants and food. Uranium breaks down (decays) very slowly into other elements including radium and radon.

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Radium is a radioactive metal that and can exist in several forms called isotopes. Radium can be found at varying levels throughout Vermont and the entire Earth—in soil, water, rocks, plants and food.

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Radon is a radioactive gas that has no color, smell or taste. Radon comes from the decay of uranium, which is a radioactive element found naturally in the Earth’s crust. Over billions of years, uranium decays into radium, and eventually, radon.

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Polonium (Po-210) is a radioactive material that occurs naturally at very low concentrations in the environment. It can be produced in university or government nuclear reactors, but it requires expertise to do so.

What are the health concerns relating to polonium in drinking water?

Po-210 only becomes a radiation hazard if it gets inside the body through breathing, eating or by entering through a wound. This internal contamination can cause irradiation of organs, which can result in serious medical symptoms or death. Po-210 and its radiation do not get through intact skin or membranes. It is not an external hazard to the body. Most traces can be removed through careful washing.

Learn about polonium

Other Radioactive Substances

Strontium-90 and cesium-137 are both products of nuclear fission, and do not occur naturally in the environment.

Learn more about strontium-90 and cesium-137

Zinc-65, manganese-54 and cobalt-60 are produced when steel components in a nuclear reactor corrode.

Learn more about zinc-65, manganese-54 and cobalt-60