Radioactive particles in local water supply

Lab tests show that there are radioactive particles in drinking water supplies in and around Houston. KHOU's investigative reporter Mark Greenblatt has been reporting extensively on the radiation, tracking it to certain groundwater wells and explaining the increased cancer risk. He sat down recently to talk about his findings with KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel.
You began by looking through all the water sample tests conducted by the state of Texas. What did you find in the water?

Something that would surprise a lot of people. We found radiation. Not in every water system in Texas but certainly in our region, in the Houston and Harris County region. We found a lot of radioactive contaminants sitting in the water.

What kind of radiation is it? And where does it come from?

This isn’t something like, somebody spilled the contents of a nuclear bomb. What this is is, believe it or not, naturally-occurring uranium, radium and other kinds of naturally occurring radioactive materials. Just because it’s naturally occurring, doesn’t mean that this stuff can’t hurt you. And as scientists have told us: in any amount, this radiation can actually increase your risks for cancer.

Where is the water coming from that the radiation is in?

In our region we still depend on what are called ground wells. Now the trouble is that where those underground streams are running by is also right next to these radioactive uranium deposits. So we bring the uranium up in the water that you and I drink and it doesn’t get filtered out at the water purification plant.

So the surface water is okay, the water from you know Lake Houston, Lake Conroe, that’s fine?

Yeah, and about 80 percent of the city of Houston’s water, comes from these surface water sources. But 20 percent of the water is still coming from underground.

What neighborhoods in Houston, around Houston are most in danger? The City of Houston itself has identified a number of neighborhoods such as the Spring Branch area, Jersey Village, the entire southwest sector of the city, all of these areas are areas that are really hot spots for this stuff. And then there’s a neighborhood that’s called the Chasewood neighborhood, and that neighborhood in particular not only has this stuff in their water, but they have enough of it to exceed even federal legal limits.

But officially, the city officials say that the drinking water here is safe, and they’ve never received a violation for water contamination of this kind. So how does that square with your findings?

The EPA and every public health scientists that we’ve talked to, have all said that any amount of radiation in drinking water is not safe, any amount will increase your risk for cancer. Now what is true is that in some cases, that utilities such as Houston have been able to avoid legal violations of having radiation in their water, not because it’s safe, but because throughout the entire system what they do is they average out all of their tests for all of their wells, rather than telling you that particular neighborhoods have really high amounts, they’re able to avoid violations by simply averaging out all of their readings.

So what have you done to protect yourself?

What I’ve learned is that my refrigerator purifier doesn’t help me. My charcoal filter, which some people know as a Britta, doesn’t help get this stuff out. You need something a little bit more robust, and I’ve bought it. It’s called a reverse osmosis kit, you can them at any major hardware store.

Is there any way for our listeners to find out from your reports, or from the city, if their house is close to one of these contaminated wells?


The city doesn’t seem to be that excited about letting us do that and they’re actually fighting us at the Attorney General level in the state of Texas, to try to prevent us from getting access to something that would let us tell you if your water specifically, street by street, has high amounts of radiation.

It sounds like you’ve got more stories coming up?

We’ve got a lot more coming up.

Thank you, Mark.

Very good to be here.

Mark Greenblatt is an investigative reporter for KHOU-11 News in Houston. For more information, view his water quality investigative reports, where you can also find a searchable database of city and county water utilities and their contaminant test results.
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...