My Turn/McCutchen: Hidden dangers in our water

The government must not overlook potential dangers of radon in water


  • Water from the Deerfield River rages over the dam onto the potholes in Shelburne Falls

Published: 6/20/2016 7:09:29 PM

May, 2016, my household received a blue flyer from the Shelburne Falls Fire District titled “Water Quality Report 2015” saying: “Radon … has been detected in our system at 1,140 PCi/L in 2000.”

We have a child who’s compromised with asthma and daily migraines. We’re always considering possible environmental triggers. So I looked up the definition of “PCi/L” online at the Water Research Center (

It explained that PCi/L means “picocuries per liter,” named for Madam Curie, since radon is a radioactive gas. According to the Water Report, radon is not yet an EPA regulated contaminant, but soon will be. The Water Research Center put our town’s 1,140 PCi/L somewhat in context with the following:

The American Society of Heating Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Engineers set 2 PCi/L as a reasonable level for commercial building and residencies.

The EPA currently recommends 4 PCi/L in air.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has 16 PCi/L as a safe level in mines.

Despite these recommendations (admitting difficulties in comparing water to air levels), the upcoming EPA regulations are “currently prepared” to set a max level of 300 to 4,000 PCi/L in drinking water. Which means that 1,140 PCi/L probably won’t set up any red flags for remediation — despite seeming very high in comparison to the above.

The Water Research Center included a table that claimed 20 PCi/L in drinking water, over a lifetime, meant 8 to 135 out of 1,000 people would likely get lung cancer (especially smokers, since cigarettes also contain radon). Radon is released in air when we shower or wash dishes, etc., so those activities can lead to lung cancer, while drinking radon can cause stomach cancer. Shelburne Falls had a population of 1,731 in 2010. That’s a lot of our friends and neighbors at risk, at levels far below those shown on our Water Quality Report in 2000.

If 8 to 135 out of 1000 people will get lung cancer after a lifetime of 20 PCi/L of radon in their water, how many will become ill from 1,140 PCi/L? And why is the EPA likely to recommend up to 4,000 PCi/L as safe? According to the National Cancer Institute, radon causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

Perhaps we should ask the Fire District to update their Water Report, so we can compare the levels of radon measured in 2000 to the current levels, to see approximate radon exposure over the last 15 years at least. Then we should discuss how to lower it.

It’s easy to complain about the numerous contaminants in our food and environment — I suspect many of us give up worrying at some point. But clean water is that most basic thing which keeps us alive — a precious and increasingly threatened resource. And there seem to be fairly simple solutions to radon contamination, if only we implement them.


According to the Water Research Center:

Aeration can reportedly reduce radon by 90-plus percent.

Carbon block filters can reduce radon 85-plus percent.

Filtering household drinking water won’t reduce radon released by showering, running the faucet or washing clothes. A reverse osmosis filter might, but could cost around $20,000 per household. Filtration and aeration should happen at the Water Treatment plant.

I spoke with a member of the Sheburne Falls Water Department who said we get our water from two wells. Our water treatment doesn’t currently include aeration at all (they test Ph and for E. coli indicators — and fortunately haven’t seen the latter in 3 to 4 years). He said it could cost a million dollars to build holding tanks and to aerate. The Water Department did the radon test in 2000 to have a baseline, but they can’t do much (including retesting) until the EPA sets a standard. They don’t know why the EPA is dragging its feet. Maybe because of cost? Shelburne Falls is still paying off a newish pump station. There’s no plans (or money?) for upgrading water treatment.

As with many of our contemporary environmental ills, we have the knowledge and technical solutions. Paying to implement those solutions is the sticking point. We need to pick our battles, but protecting clean water is among the most important for health and quality of life.

So please read your Water Quality Reports! I write this in hopes of some community discussion toward supporting our Fire District in reducing radon and making our water the best it can be, rather than just letting it fall within allowable levels of contamination. I worry that EPA regulators may be letting monetary concerns outweigh human health by not setting realistic (or any) standards. I don’t think 8 to 135 out of 1,000 people getting cancer is acceptable. At 1,140 PCi/L, our town is at risk of much higher.

Flint, Mich., is only one of many examples of how poor water quality can ruin lives if we don’t work together to police and protect our resources. It’s also worth noting that Flint is dealing with the same aging infrastructure we all have in place. Radon is not the only contaminant we should be vigilantly monitoring (and note that as radon decays, it breaks down into lead, among other toxins). I highly recommend reading WIRED’s online article: “The Flint Crisis Isn’t Over: It’s Everywhere” —

And then let’s talk.

D.K. McCutchen is a senior lecturer at the College of Natural Sciences, UMass Amherst. She lives in Shelburne Falls.


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