Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in soil, rocks, and water. Radium is radioactive, meaning its atoms are unstable and will decay over time. This process of radioactive decay produces gamma radiation, which can damage and mutate the cells in our body. This makes exposure to radium through inhalation or ingestion highly dangerous, leading to an increased risk of bone, blood, liver, and breast cancers. Even more concerning, radioactive decay of radium also produces the element radon, another radioactive element which causes lung cancer. The EPA classifies both radium and radon as known human carcinogens.
Radium is present at low levels in the environment, but elevated levels can be released through industrial plants that extract or process fuels such as ores, coal, oil, and gas. Working in these kinds of facilities or being exposed to improperly protected waste from them are common ways people come into contact with radium.
In Ohio, communities are being exposed to radium in new ways. A byproduct of oil and gas production wells is brine, a mixture of injection chemicals, oil, salts, and water from the underground geologic formation. The state Department of Transportation uses this brine on roads as a deicer and dust suppressant in at least 28 counties. This brine can ultimately end up in soil, drinking water, and agricultural products. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) tested samples from 151 gas and oil wells and the vast majority of them contained radium levels far above state legal limits and EPA drinking water standards. This means the brine sprayed on roads likely contains high levels of radium that pose a danger to the surrounding communities.
This brine is filtered and supplemented with an anti-corrosive chemical to create the consumer product AquaSalina for the general public to use on sidewalks and roads. All AquaSalina samples tested by ODNR contained radium levels above federal drinking water limits, and the average amount of radium was 346 times the EPA standard.
Batches of oil or gas brine are not legally required to be tested for radioactivity, and there are no provisions for monitoring radioactivity in the areas where brine is used. This means that even though communities are being exposed to dangerous levels of radium we don’t know the full extent of environmental and health impacts. The best way to keep people safe is to stop using radium-containing brine.