Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gotta do something about that water

Goodness, there's uranium in Madison's drinking water!

Something must be afoul. Who dumped it there? Is it tailings from a uranium mine?

None of the above. The fact is that uranium is a natural element found in sedimentary rock all over the world. 

Fortunately, all but a minute percent has a nucleus with 238 protons and neutrons. This renders the material incapable of sustaining a nuclear reaction.

No need to worry about mushroom shaped clouds.

Occasionally a uranium atom will emit an alpha particle, which is two protons and two neutrons. This turns the atom into thorium. Alpha particles are big, but weak. They cannot penetrate a piece of tissue paper.

The problem with drinking uranium-containing water is that uranium is a metal, and metals are often toxic, like lead or mercury, although we require iron, copper and a few others. 

Uranium deposits naturally break down into lighter radioactive elements, and in the process, release radiation.  Uranium is ultimately reduced to lead. Along the way, a bunch of other elements are formed.

This is where radon comes from. If there weren't uranium underground in these parts, radon wouldn't seep into basements or out-gas from bath water. Wherever there's radon, somewhere relatively nearby there's a uranium compound.

If you're not terrified of radon, no need to get excited about a little uranium.

If the water in Madison is absolutely loaded with uranium, by all means, stop drinking it or bathing in it. Perhaps the town could install a water supply system and draw from reservoirs.

Meanwhile, the Madison uranium has been there for at least a few million years. But water-borne uranium is not a freakish curse.

 There are plenty of other water sources that we avoid because of chemical "contamination."  People avoid drinking water with too much fluoride, we don't consumer water from sulfur springs, and no one can consume ocean water very long without dire consequences.

We shouldn't assume that any water is safe and potable unless a few basic tests are done. Since we've known about radon for decades, perhaps it should have occurred to someone to check for uranium. 

While we're at it, check the bottled water, too. After all, it comes from the same subterranean geology as the water in Madison.

1 comment:

  1. The amount of uranium coming from the tap might pale in comparison to the what's in the adjoining counter top. Future headline: "Drop in home values led to flat market for equity-financed high-end kitchen renovations, decline in metal toxicity-related diseases".