News Analysis: States Move To Regulate Waterborne Radon, EPA Stalls

According to the President's Cancer Panel radon is one of America's "most grossly underestimated" environmentally caused cancer risks. But there are no federal regulations and little state guidance on radon in drinking water. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray joins host Jennifer Szweda Jordan to talk about why a few Northeastern states are moving forward on radon guidelines, and why many Pennsylvanians may be at risk.

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OPEN: Radon is one of America's--quote--"grossly underestimatedî environmentally caused cancer risks. That's according to a recent report from the President's Cancer Panel, an advisory group under the U-S National Institutes of Health. †But there are no federal regulations and little state guidance on radon in drinking water. †The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray is here with me to talk about why a few Northeastern states are moving forward on radon guidelines, and why Pennsylvanians may be particularly at risk.

JORDAN: †In 1986, Congress mandated EPA to create regulations for radon. What happened next?

MURRAY: The agency's recommendations created a lot of debate and that resulted in a revised EPA proposal in 1999. The issue remains contentious and EPA says it's continuing to evaluate ìstakeholder concerns with the proposed rule.î

JORDAN: So a rule has been in the works for nearly 25 years. Why has EPA been so slow to act?

MURRAY: †EPA says it hasn't taken action because of cost concerns for homeowners with wells and for public water systems. A homeowner who wants to treat a contaminated well can expect to spend about $4,000 for installation of a filtration system or more than $6,000 for an aeration system.

JORDAN: Would public water systems complain about the cost, too?

MURRAY: Water utilities claim that the price of regulating radon in water supplies would be prohibitive and the cost would end up being pushed on customers. Utilities and other critics of regulating radon in drinking water contend the main risk of cancer from radon leaching from soil into a house through cracks in the foundation. †So they're saying that the main concern is not from exposure from radon in water.

JORDAN: What are the statistics for deaths from radon?

MURRAY: It's estimated that radon seeping into household indoor air kills 21,000 Americans each year from lung cancer. That's compared to just a few hundred deaths from radon in water. †About 160 lung cancer deaths result from breathing in radon emitted from household water. About 100 stomach, colon, and liver cancer deaths annually result from ingesting radon from the tap or in food or when showering.

JORDAN: If the incidence of cancer is so much lower from radon exposure in drinking water than in indoor air, why should EPA pursue regulations?

MURRAY: Regulation proponents say there are a couple reasons. First, the incidence of cancer from water-borne radon is much higher than the risk of cancer from several contaminants that EPA already regulates. †Those include benzene and some pesticides. Second it's difficult to quantify exactly how many people are exposed to radon because it takes decades for health problems to show up. So many more people than these numbers reflect might be getting sick from water-borne radon.

JORDAN: †So now some States are moving to regulate radon in water. †Which states and why?

MURRAY: Radon is naturally occurring but its levels fluctuate throughout the US. About a handful of states are attempting to set what they say are "safe" levels. †New Jersey's environmental regulators for example want a standard five times as high as the one that EPA has proposed. †Most states moving toward guidelines for radon are in the Northeast where the levels are among the country's highest. Pennsylvania and other Appalachian states have higher levels of radon in BOTH the water and air than most other states. †

JORDAN: But I understand that Pennsylvania is not one of the states taking action on the radon in water.

MURRAY: Bob Lewis with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection says the state doesn't have the money or scientific expertise to craft its own radon regulation. He says the state is waiting for EPA to act.

JORDAN: Is Lewis worried that we could be waiting a long time for the federal government's regulation?

MURRAY: Lewis says that he thinks that people who get their water from public systems are relatively safe. †And that's because their water supplies come from surface water where a high concentration of radon is unlikely to be found. However, he can't point to data because most public systems aren't testing for radon. He says the three million Pennsylvanians who get their water from wells have a higher risk to exposure because their water comes from underground and should have their wells tested.

JORDAN: Any data to indicate how high radon concentrations are in wells here in the state?

MURRAY: The US Geological Survey sampled groundwater in southeastern PA and found that 80 percent of the water had a higher concentration of radon than the EPA standard would allow. This was similar to results reported in a 1993 Penn State study of nearly 1000 wells throughout Pennsylvania.

JORDAN: Thanks for the information.

MURRAY: Thank you.