EPA Issues Draft Radiological Guide for Drinking Water

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By Rachel Leven

June 7 — Emergency responders should restrict the general population's consumption of drinking water after a radiological incident occurs if the water has a radionuclides concentration of at least 500 millirem projected dose in the first year, the Environmental Protection Agency said in recently released draft guidance developed in response to Japan's Fukushima disaster.

Anyone younger than 15, or pregnant or nursing should abide by a more-stringent 100 millirem projected dose in the first year until the incident is under control, the EPA said in its June 6 draft. Environmentalists attacked the draft June 7 for allowing levels of exposure through water that are too high, while rural water utilities praised EPA's transparent and non-regulatory approach.

“A PAG [protective action guide] is intended as a point of reference to aid emergency response managers in their decision-making,” the draft guide that is intended to prevent acute and reduce risk of effects such as lifetime risk of cancer said. “After a particular situation stabilizes and becomes more clearly defined, local authorities may wish to modify the PAG level they consider to be appropriate in order to implement longer-term dose reduction strategies.”

The draft guide, which was issued following a 2013 EPA request for comment, could be used and considered with radiological incidents guides for other media such as the Food and Drug Administration's guide for food ingestion. The draft offers non-binding recommendations that authorities could apply as needed.

If made final, the draft guidance would have a one-year implementation time frame. The EPA is sending a notice on the draft guide to the Federal Register for a 45-day comment period.

Is It Appropriate?

Environmentalists took aim at the EPA for establishing what some called egregiously high drinking water guide levels. Several environmentalists had urged the EPA in 2013 to establish guide levels only in line with existing maximum contaminant levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“Given this monstrous proposal, it is unclear what lessons EPA learned from the contaminated water calamity of Flint, Michigan,” Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement. “It is unfathomable that a public health agency would prescribe subjecting people to radioactive concentrations a thousand times above Safe Drinking Water Act limits as a ‘protective’ measure.”

The maximum contaminant levels were intended for limiting “everyday exposure” and assume 70 years of continuous exposure, while this guide would be in place only for emergencies, the EPA said. The entity responsible for any radiation incident-impacted drinking water system would be expected to “return to compliance” with maximum contaminant levels “by the earliest feasible time,” the EPA's draft guide itself said.

Meanwhile, agencies from Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington suggested in 2013 the EPA establish a 500 millirem level, which the EPA partially agreed to do in its latest draft. But the EPA said when possible, additional protections should be set for the most sensitive populations, referring to its two-tier 100 millirem level.

A ‘Tailored' Approach

Mike Keegan, an analyst for the National Rural Water Association, complimented the EPA's non-regulatory and transparent approach. The approach will allow decision makers to identify the “best solutions tailored to that community's unique circumstances,” he said.

“When faced with contamination in the drinking water supply, local officials have to make immediate and difficult public welfare decisions,” Keegan told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. “Their options may be limited by lack of alternative sources of drinking water or no possible way to immediately treat the drinking water.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The pre-publication Federal Register notice is at http://src.bna.com/fFV.

The draft Protective Action Guide is available at http://src.bna.com/fFX.