Photo illustration by Chris Rogers and Monica Veraguth

Radium common in local water


The water in each glass represents the radium level in Lewiston water over the last nine years. The black line represents the federal health standard. The data is sourced from Lewiston’s consumer confidence reports (CCR) and from its recent public notice.
The water in each glass represents the radium level in Lewiston water over the last nine years. The black line represents the federal health standard. The data is sourced from Lewiston’s consumer confidence reports (CCR) and from its recent public notice.
*Lewiston’s 2014 CCR states that the city’s water system exceeded the radium limit that year, but it does not state what the radium level was. City officials said they did not have that information. A state official stated that the CCR should have reported a level of 6.9 picocuries per liter. **The city’s 2017 CCR has not been released yet. In a January 11, 2018, public notice, the city stated that an August 2017 test resulted in an annual average of 7.7 picocuries per liter.

Slow response in Lewiston; Winona failed to notify public


Lewiston broke the news on page four of the Lewiston Journal last month. “This is not an emergency,” the notice read in bold letters. “You do not need an alternative source of water, such as bottled water.”

The city’s notice explained, “Our water system recently violated a drinking water standard. Although this is not an emergency, as our customers, you have a right to know what happened, what you should do, and what we are doing to correct the situation.”

The standard Lewiston violated was the federal limit for radium in drinking water, and the city has now taken steps that state officials say has corrected the problem. What the public notice did not mention is that Lewiston’s violation was not just a recent event. Lewiston’s public water system has reported high radium levels every year since 2009.

Most drinking water contaminants are man-made problems, but radium is a different story. The by-product of naturally occurring uranium and thorium deep underground, radioactive radium is especially common in Southeast Minnesota aquifers, and over the years, many local cities have had to deal with radium pollution in city drinking water. Goodview and La Crescent dealt with it in past years. Within the last year, Winona, Stockton, Lewiston, and Houston all had radium levels that exceeded the federal limit. Governments tend to view correcting radium contamination as non-urgent, and there is a reason for that.

Radium is a carcinogen especially associated with bone cancers, but according to federal and state health experts, citizens have to consume radium for a long time to face health risks. “If we have a nitrate issue, it gets addressed immediately. The public gets notified immediately,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Community Public Water Supply Unit Supervisor Karla Peterson said. “Whereas, with carcinogens, because they work on your body over time, we have a little time to work on them.”

It takes a long time for radium exposure to cause increased health risks, MDH Health Educator Stew Thornley stated. Peterson said that the EPA’s five-picocuries-of-radium-per-liter limit is based on an estimate that drinking two liters of water every day for 70 years would cause an increased cancer risk of between one-in-10,000 to one-in-a-million. Other institutions also reported that the EPA’s limit is based on an small increased risk of cancer deaths over a long time. Researchers at West Virginia University and Madison & Dane County (Wis.) Public Health cited EPA research as stating that out of every one million people drinking water with five picocuries of radium per liter for 70 years, 44 would be expected to die from radium-induced cancer. At 10 picocuries per liter, the number increases to 88 per one million, according to the two reports. The Winona Post could not trace these statements to a specific EPA document, and EPA staff could not verify the claims before press time.

“The MCL [maximum contaminant level] is based on 70 years of exposure at 2 liters of water per day. So two years out of 70 years is pretty minimal,” Peterson stated.

Should people start to worry after nine years? Peterson said she would feel comfortable drinking the water in Lewiston. “That’s my comfort level, and I understand when people don’t,” she stated.

Richard and Karen Ahrens don’t feel comfortable. They have already been drinking bottled water for years, but the Ahrens were dumbfounded by the city’s slow response to the radium problem. Richard still had notes from discussing radium when he was on the council back in 2005. He asked, “How long have we been drinking radium water?” Karen added, “The city has a Fool’s Five Race to find a cure for cancer. Why don’t we start with a little prevention?”

“I think it might be more likely that I get struck by a zombie apocalypse than get radium poisoning,” Lewiston City Council member Larry Rupprecht said. Noting that water softeners can help remove radium and stating that only a few hundred in Lewiston do not have softeners, Rupprecht said, “My question to the EPA and the rest is, how many years will the 300 people in Lewiston have to look forward to before the first person in Lewiston is stricken and dies from radium poisoning?” With those odds, it could be thousands of years, Rupprecht stated. Is reducing that risk really worth the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars it may cost cities to remove radium? he asked.

Winona’s water violated limit, then Winona violated public notice requirement

According to the MDH, the city of Winona failed to notify the public as required by law following high radium levels in 2016 and 2017.

For the Winona, the bad news began on August 23, 2016, when test results showed that water at the Westfield water plant contained 9.4 picocuries of radium per liter. Because radium levels tend to fluctuate up and down, after receiving one over-the-limit test result , cities are required to start testing for radium every quarter. If, after four quarters, the results are still over-the-limit, that city is officially in violation and must notify the public within 30 days, according to Peterson. The city then has to continue testing and tell the state how it intends to fix the problem.

In Winona, a November 2016 test at the Westfield plant measured 9.9 picocuries per liter, a January 2017 test measured 11.6 picocuries, and June 2017 test measured 7.4 picocuries, according to Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson. On October 6, 2017, the city was officially in violation and the MDH told city officials they had to notify the public within 30 days, Nelson said.

However, one week later, the city received its latest test results showing that the Westfield plant was below the limit, with just 4.9 picocuries per liter.

“The letter [from the state] talked about notifying the public within 30 days of that violation, but we got it fixed within 30 days so no notice was sent out because it was fixed,” Nelson said. In hindsight, did Nelson think the city should have handled the public notice differently? “I think we’re OK. We had 30 day notice to notify people, and the problem was solved in that time. So, I think it was done fine.”

That’s not how it works, Peterson stated. Even though its latest test was under the limit, the city was still required to notify the public about the violation, she said.

The MDH is supposed to check whether cities do notify the public. The state regulators do this by requiring cities to send in certificates swearing that they notified the public. What happened in Winona? “We did not receive a signed certification from Winona,” Peterson reported. She sympathized with city staff’s mistake, however. “I will say, I went back and looked at the notice of violation letter that goes out to the community, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. … I can understand how someone would think that they weren’t required to do the public notice,” she said.

Ironically, because Winona failed to provide public notice within 30 days, the city now has one year to notify citizens of its earlier failure to notify them, according to Peterson. That is what federal law requires, she said, adding, “It’s imperfect.”

The high radium levels detected in Winona were only found at the city’s Westfield plant. The Johnson Street water plant is the primary plant for the core city. The Westfield plant is the city’s secondary water plant for the core city, and the actual tap water citizens received during 2017 was likely much lower in radium than the tests from the Westfield plant alone, Nelson said. A third water plant in Wincrest Park serves the Wincrest and Crestview neighborhoods.

How cities addressed the problem

According to city officials, the latest results for radium levels in Lewiston, Winona, and Stockton are all acceptable. The cities each took different approaches to solving their radium problems.

In Winona, the city added a radium-removing chemical — potassium permanganate — to its water treatment process in January 2017. Radium test results can take months to get back from the lab, and in March, the city received results showing that the chemical treatment was not working.

That was a cheaper, generic version of potassium permanganate, Nelson said, and after it failed, city staff went with the name brand: TonkaZorb. The brand-name additive came with its hardware, Nelson said, and it is expected to cost the city around $140,000. It was installed last August. The early indication is promising. Last October, the city got the results from a sample taken on August 15, 2017, showing that the radium level at Westfield was just under the federal limit. “At this point, we need to keep testing,” Nelson said. “Four-point-nine [picocuries] is below the limit, but it’s certainly not as low as we’d like to get it.”

In years past, Lewiston has dealt with nitrate pollution in drinking water, as well as radium. There is tradeoff for cities trying to deal with both, Peterson said. Deeper wells tend to have less nitrate but more radium, she explained. In 2007, the city was mixing a well with high nitrates — well number three — with a well with high radium — well number four — to produce water that could meet the standards for both. However, in 2016, Lewiston built a new well — well number five — at a cost of $904,580, according to the city clerk, and sealed well number three. “Nitrate levels are a thing of the past,” Lewiston Public Works Director Curt Benter said.

Peterson reported that initially, city officials had hoped to mingle water from well number five and well number four, but the mixture still failed to meet the radium standard. “The blending just wasn’t correct between well number four and five, and well number four has always been high in radium results,” Benter stated. Now, the city is using water from well number five only, which city and state officials say is low in radium.

In an interview, Benter said explained that most of the city’s radium testing was done for the two wells combined. As of last Wednesday, he had one radium test result from well number five alone, a test from 2016 when the well was opened, which measured the radium level at 3.7 picocuries per liter. Benter was expecting new test results from well five any day now.

Hopefully, well number five will solve Lewiston’s radium problem. If the new test results come back high, Lewiston might have to consider building a radium treatment plant. Benter said the city’s engineer estimated that to cost $3 million or more. “That’s just one of those issues that we cannot afford right now,” Benter said. He added, “We’ve got our fingers crossed that everything comes back in compliance.”

In Stockton, the city has been trying to address high radium levels since 2013. The city tried drilling one well, but it did not provide enough water. Drilling new wells can be a gamble for cities. “That’s just the thing. Our engineer stated, ‘You don't know what’s underneath the ground.’ So it’s kind of a crap shoot,” Stockton City Clerk Beth Winchester said.

So Stockton tried again. Its latest well started operating a month ago, Winchester said. Stockton received a $785,000 low-interest loan from the state to fund the well. The initial test results for radium were good, but the city is still waiting on test results for other contaminants, Winchester reported.

Asked how citizens should respond to high radium levels, MDH Lead Compliance Engineer Anna Schliep advised, “Don’t panic, but support your city in finding a solution. Sometimes its hard for cities to get funding.”

What can homeowners do

There are options for homeowners who want to remove radium from their water. Water softening, reverse osmosis, and distillation are all effective, according to state and federal authorities; however, carbon filters are discouraged. While carbon filter can trap radium, if not changed regularly, the filters can actually cause a build-up of radium. “We don’t normally recommend them, because they can fill up with radium, and if you’re not diligent in maintenance of those you can cause yourself a larger radium problem,” Schliep explained.

More information is available at


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