Recent Study Finds Uranium and Metal Concentration Levels Are Elevated In Semi-Urban Community Water Supplies

A recent study on metal concentrations in U.S. community water systems and patterns of inequalities was conducted by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The study found that metal concentrations were elevated in community water systems serving semi-urban, Hispanic communities independent of location or region, highlighting environmental justice concerns. These communities had the highest levels of uranium, selenium, barium, chromium, and arsenic concentrations. The full study is available in The Lancet Planetary Health:

Uranium is an element that has no taste or smell and naturally present in bedrock in many places. Various studies have shown that drinking water with elevated levels of uranium can affect the kidneys over time. Uranium can decay into other radioactive substances, such as radium, which can cause cancer with extensive exposure over a long period of time (U.S. EPA, 2013).

According to the Argonne National Laboratory, uranium exposure can result in both chemical and radiological toxicity. The main chemical effect associated with exposure to uranium and its compounds is kidney toxicity. This toxicity can be caused by breathing air containing uranium dusts or by eating substances containing uranium, which then enters the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the uranium compounds are filtered by the kidneys, where they can cause damage to the kidney cells. Very high uranium intakes (ranging from about 50 to 150 mg depending on the individual) can cause acute kidney failure and death. At lower intake levels (around 25 to 40 mg), damage can be detected by the presence of protein and dead cells in the urine, but there are no other symptoms. At lower intake levels, the kidney repairs itself over a period of several weeks after the uranium exposure has stopped.

The main radiation hazard from uranium occurs when uranium compounds are ingested or inhaled. However, workers in the vicinity of large quantities of uranium in storage or in a processing facility also are exposed to low levels of external radiation from uranium decay products. At the exposure levels typically associated with the handling and processing of uranium, the primary radiation health effect of concern is an increased probability of the exposed individual developing cancer during their lifetime. Cancer cases induced by radiation are generally indistinguishable from other “naturally occurring” cancers and occur years after the exposure takes place. The probability of developing a radiation-induced cancer increases with increasing uranium intakes.


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