2 March 2001

Own water supply? Its wise to check it out…

IF your water supply comes from a spring, well or borehole, like many farms and country properties, it could be prudent to get someone to run a Geiger counter over your morning cuppa. Without being alarmist, the contents of your teapot could be radioactive.

A recent study of private water supplies in West Devon has discovered that 7% had uranium levels higher than world health guidelines; 8% also exceeded the advisory level for radon, a radioactive gas, set by the National Radiological Protection board.

That is the bad news. The good news is that there is no need to panic. A becquerel of radioactive material in your tea or coffee, along with the spoonful of sugar and a drop of milk, will, in all probability, cause you not the slightest bit of harm.

The study, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (DETR) and carried out by the British Geological Survey with West Devon Borough Council, involved testing water supplied at 116 different locations. Of these, 18 had notable results. Four were above both radon and uranium action level, not a boundary between safe and unsafe but a point at which taking some action is usually justified.

The rest were either above for radon but below for uranium, and vice versa, or were approaching the limit. West Devon has some 2,500 private water supplies and it is estimated that 380 could be affected.

Many are used for agricultural purposes and while environment officials have taken food samples for testing, no adverse effects on produce are anticipated.

&#42 More dangerous

Of the two elements, radon is thought to be the more dangerous. Before the study it was assumed that the gas would be "vented" in drinking water. It is now known only 10% is lost at the tap and about 70% when water is boiled.

It occurs in many types of rock, especially the granite found in Devon. In the air it increases the risk of lung cancer, especially in smokers. There is less of a problem in water but long-term exposure to high levels raises the possibility of stomach cancer.

Uranium, which occurs naturally, is common in water in minute amounts. It has been linked with kidney disease but at much higher levels than those found in West Devon.

Health officials are stressing that the risk is small, although those with premises where levels have been approached or exceeded have been offered advice and options on remedial action. Radon can be removed from water.

This study is, however, unlikely to be unique. High levels of radon gas have also been detected in other parts of the country.

The DETR has written to local authorities, who enforce regulations, drawing their attention to the findings.

Anyone concerned about their water supply can contact NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 or their local environment health office. Advice and background information can also be obtained from the West Devon Councils website at www.westdevon.gov.uk

Tom Montgomery