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What causes radium in water and why is it bad for me?

May 3, 2011

Waukesha was once again in the news last week when city officials submitted to the DNR a lengthy supplement to augment its application to withdraw water from Lake Michigan.

Waukesha is seeking water from Lake Michigan to address the city's future water needs; Lake Michigan water would also help provide a solution to the high levels of radium in Waukesha's current water supply. So what is radium, and why do Waukesha residents need to be concerned about it?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radium is a naturally occurring radioactive metal that occurs at low levels in almost all rock, soil, water, plants and animals.

Some types of rocks, however - including shales, granites and sandstones - can contain a higher percentage of radium than others, according to a public notice released last year by the Waukesha Water Utility.

Waukesha's wells draw from formations containing sandstone and shale, which may be the cause of the higher levels of radium in the city's water.

Long-term exposure to ingested or inhaled radium increases the risk of diseases such as lymphoma, bone cancer, leukemia and aplastic anemia, says the EPA.

However, the Waukesha Water Utility says the immediate health risk from radium in the city's water is negligible.

"The water is safe to drink, and seeking of alternative water sources of unknown bacteriological or chemical quality is not recommended," says the public notice.

What do you want to know? E-mail your questions to nowyouknow@wi.rr.com.

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