Myrtle Creek residents, along with more than half of Americans, could be drinking tap water that contains traces of radium and other contaminants that could increase the risk of cancer, according to a report from a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.
The Environmental Protection Agency, however, said the levels reported in Myrtle Creek are much lower than the agency’s maximum level for public water systems. An agency spokesman said it is not feasible for water systems to completely remove radium from drinking water.
The report, released by the Environmental Working Group on Thursday, said the water more than 170 million U.S. citizens drink contains radioactive elements that could be cancer-causing. On the nonprofit’s website, the group says its mission is to drive civic action and consumer choice through research and education.
But according to the EPA, more than 91 percent of the U.S. population receives drinking water from water systems that do meet health standards.
The report states in 2011, Myrtle Creek's water had an average radium level of 0.6 picoCuries per liter, well below the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s established maximum contaminant level of 5 pC/L. This standard was set in the agency’s Radionuclides Final Rule, which was last updated in 2000.
The advocacy group’s analysis includes test results of public water systems between 2010 to 2015. During this time, more than 22,000 water utilities serving more than 170 million people across every state reported finding radium in their water.
Tap water from Myrtle Creek’s water utility, which serves 3,460 people, was reported to be in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards from January to March 2017, the latest assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency. The advocacy group states that during the same time period, the utility was in violation of monitoring for contaminants or reporting monitoring tests to state agencies.
“EPA sets limits for radionuclides, including radium, in public drinking water through the Safe Drinking Water Act,” EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said. “Local water suppliers must follow these limits and are required to inform citizens about the level of radionuclides in their water.”
The EPA website states, “chronic exposure to high levels of radium can result in an increased incidence of bone, liver or breast cancer.” When radium decays, it produces radon, a radioactive gas that is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country.
Sean Negherbon, city administrator for Myrtle Creek, said the data shown in the report is different than the city's own records. The city's records show three of eight samples in Myrtle Creek's public water tested positive for radium, all of which were below the maximum contaminant level.
"We have had radium detected a couple times over the years, as other utilities do," Negherbon said.
Though not included on the Environmental Working Group's map of places where radium was detected, the report shows Glide Water Association had an average radium level in its water of 0.23 pCi/L.
Officials from the Oregon Health Authority were not available by press time.