Making sense of radiation levels in Philadelphia drinking water

    New tests of drinking water around Philadelphia show trace amounts of radiation, but federal environmental protection officials say low levels of iodine-131 found at three sites in early April are well below levels that could hurt health and comparable to trace amounts found in 2010 before the nuclear incident in Japan.

    Trace amounts of radiation from iodine-131 were found in three water treatment facilities near Philadelphia.

    New tests of drinking water around Philadelphia show trace amounts of radiation, but federal environmental protection officials say low levels of iodine-131 found at three sites in early April are well below levels that could hurt health and comparable to trace amounts found in 2010 before the nuclear incident in Japan.

    “One would have to consume a large amount of this water, an extremely high amount, every day over about 70 years to see any effect. It is still below levels of concern,” said Katie Gresh, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

    In an email, David Sternberg a spokesman with the Environmental Protection Agency said it’s “unclear” whether the new readings are related to radiation from Japan or other sources in the Philadelphia area.

    Sternberg said an infant would need to drink almost 158 gallons of the water tested in Philadelphia to receive a dose equal to a day’s worth of natural radiation exposure in the environment.

    The trace levels found in Philadelphia were detected at the Queen Lane, Belmont and Baxter treatment plants. Gresh said the state is monitoring the situation and investigating the cause.

    In late March, Pennsylvania’s tested drinking water around the state and found no traces of iodine 131.  Norristown was the closest southeast Pennsylvania site tested at that time.

    Jeffrey Patterson is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and public health professor at the University of Wisconsin. His group opposes the use of nuclear power to produce electricity.

    He says the trace radiation levels found in Philadelphia are no reason for panic–and no reason to avoid local drinking water.

    “We need to realize that these levels remain relatively low, but begin to become of concern because we are seeing them,” Patterson said.

    Patterson said Physicians for Social Responsibility wants people to understand how easily radiation can spread after a nuclear incident and how exposure moves up the food chain.

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