chemical element

What Is Uranium?

Uranium, named after the planet Uranus, is a naturally-occurring radioactive element that can be found in most rocks and in the Earth’s crust. Uranium has an atomic number of 92 and has the symbol U. Uranium is present in the Earth’s crust in the forms of tin, molybdenum and tungsten. Uranium is extremely dense, and has an atomic weight greater than any other primordially occurring element. Uranium has a melting point of 1132 degrees Celsius.

Uranium is the reason why radioactivity was discovered - Henri Becquerel left uranium samples atop an unexposed photographic plate while conducting a research in 1896 and realized the uranium had clouded the plate. The emissions of the uranium would later be classified as radioactive emissions.

Uranium is a weakly radioactive element. When an element is radioactive its nucleus is unstable and seeks a more stable arrangement of atoms. Uranium-238, the most common isotope of uranium, emits alpha and beta particles as it slowly decays to uranium-234. The half-life of uranium-238 is 4.47 billion years. This slow decay makes uranium useful in determining the overall age of the Earth.

What Is Uranium Used For?

Uranium is perhaps most commonly known as the element used within nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Uranium was once the preferred method of generating fuel, until the dangers and risks associated with nuclear power plants became clearer. As of 2017 there were nearly 450 nuclear power plants in operation around the world, accounting for 11% of the world’s electricity production.

Uranium is unevenly spread throughout the world - Australia has the largest supply of recoverable uranium with about 29% of the uranium still available on the planet. Other countries with impressive natural supplies of uranium include Kazakhstan, Canada, and Russia.

Uranium is also the element used to generate the massive amounts of energy within atomic bombs. A particular isotope of uranium dubbed uranium-235 is the only isotope that can be found in nature capable of sustaining a nuclear fission reaction. Uranium was used within the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an approximate 307,000 people within four months of the detonations due to burns, radiation sickness, and the initial blast.

How Does Uranium Get Into Water?

Uranium is naturally found in most rock deposits throughout the world in small quantities. However, in granite bedrock and types of minerals that contain heavy metals the concentration can be much higher. Uranium can find its way into your drinking water when groundwater or rainwater dissolves minerals and deposits in your area that contain uranium.

Private well owners are more susceptible to having their water contaminated with an unsafe amount of uranium. If your well is located near granite, shale bedrock, or alkaline sandstone your geographical proximity increases your risk of uranium contamination in your drinking water. Other factors can increase the likelihood of uranium finding its way into your drinking water. Any private well that is near sites with agricultural, industrial, or storm-related runoff is at a higher risk level.

Of course, if your water is supplied via a municipal organization there is still a possibility of your water containing a high amount of uranium. Read your provider’s water quality reports and research past problems in your area. Any news of the water testing for unsafe levels of uranium in your area indicate that it could happen again, as uranium contamination is larger determined by geographical factors.

Health Effects of Uranium in Drinking Water

You may be concerned that an element known for being radioactive and posing imminent danger to human health is featured on our resource pages as a water contaminant. Uranium is a water contaminant that you should take seriously, but ingesting a microscopic amount won’t cause you to become radioactive or contract an illness.

That said, serious health issues can develop from chronic uranium exposure or from consuming a concentrated amount of uranium. The Environmental Protection Agency cites long term kidney damage as the greatest health risk of consuming unsafe amounts of uranium in your water. The EPA also asserts that, in regards to exposure of uranium via drinking water, the chemical effects are more concerning than those from radioactivity.

In addition to kidney toxicity the Water Quality Association claims that exposure to uranium in drinking water over time will increase one’s risk to developing multiple forms of cancer. Because of this, it is important to periodically check your water for high levels of uranium to mitigate these effects.

Marie Curie, a famed scientist who worked with uranium in order to discover other radioactive elements like radium, likely died due to complications from chronic exposure to radioactivity. However, health problems from working in close proximity to uranium in laboratory and industrial settings differ from the health problems associated with drinking uranium.

How to Test Your Water for Uranium

You will not be able to detect uranium in your drinking water through normal consumption. Uranium is odorless, tasteless, and colorless when in drinking water. The only way to know if your water contains high amounts of uranium is to conduct a water test.

If you get your drinking water from a private well you must be proactive and test the water yourself, as the quality of well water is not regulated by the EPA. Domestic wells near mineral deposits and bedrock should be tested once a year at minimum to monitor the concentration of uranium.

There are many options for testing if you are concerned about the possibility of uranium in your drinking water. Unfortunately the testing kits offered at Pelican Water do not currently test for uranium, but there are other organizations that have the specialized tests on hand. First, you can contact your city or county health department to request a free test be conducted of your well water. If not, conduct a search online for private companies that can mail you a test for a standard fee.

Order a test and consider buying a point-of-use filter if you are concerned about the possibility of uranium contamination. Remember, boiling or heating your drinking water will not remove uranium from your drinking water.

Once your water test arrives, follow these instructions:

  1. Carefully read the packaging to guarantee a valid sample.
  2. Follow the instructions provided to gather a water sample for testing.
  3. Using FedEx or UPS Overnight Saver, return your kit with the sample to the testing laboratory location indicated in the instructions. Note: return shipping is not included.
  4. The lab that receives your sample will process the results in a timely manner.
  5. Read your results once they have been mailed back to you.

After reading your water quality analysis report it’s best to contact the lab that conducted the testing if you have any questions.

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How to Reduce Uranium in Drinking Water

According to the EPA the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for uranium is 0.03 milligrams per liter. This level is pretty low, as uranium is toxic to the kidneys even in trace amounts. Point-of-use water filtration systems are the best way to reduce the uranium in your drinking water if it has tested at a level higher than the recommended amount.

The EPA has set a MCL goal of zero for uranium, meaning that even at microscopic levels uranium is not desirable, and if you have the means install a filtration system for peace of mind. Neutralize the threat of uranium contamination by treating your drinking water directly.

The EPA does not recommend specific treatment methods for well water itself. In order to remove the uranium the most effective option is a point-of-use system at your tap.