Investigation Finds Radiation in Texas Drinking Water

TCEQ was lowballing radiation levels


KHOU-TV in Houston is out with an explosive series on worrisome radiation levels in drinking water. Part I looked at the extent of the problem and what state and federal officials are doing about it.

Hundreds of water providers around the Gulf Coast region are providing their customers with drinking water that contains radioactive contaminants that raise health risks, according to state lab results and public health scientists.

The revelations came to light during a four-month KHOU-TV investigation, which examined thousands of state laboratory tests from water providers across Texas. The data, provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), ranged from 2004 to the present.

The radiation was first discovered as a part of required testing, under federal regulations, of all drinking water provided by community water systems in America.

It’s important to note that the radiation levels in the drinking water are extremely low, on the order of parts per trillion. However, as KHOU reports, the tendency among environmental health experts and the EPA, is to regard any level as potentially dangerous to human health.

He said drinking water with any amount of alpha particles, even when consumed in amounts below federal legal limits, raises your risk to develop health problems or, in rare cases, cancer. Examples of alpha particles found in the Gulf Coast region are those from uranium, radium and other minerals.

Ozonoff describes alpha particles as a type of radiation that would not typically harm you unless inhaled or ingested.  He warns, once you take it inside your body, your health risks immediately begin to rise.

“It can’t penetrate very far, but when it hits something it does a ferocious amount of damage,” he said. “If I were to drink it, then many parts of your body are within knife-wielding distance of an alpha particle.”

Part II aired last night and it reveals what appears to be scientific malpractice on the part of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality scientists. One expert in the KHOU story called it a “cover-up.”

For more than 20 years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality under-reported the amount of radiation found in drinking water provided by communities all across Texas. As a result, health risks to people consuming the water have been underestimated in many water systems where radioactive contaminants are present.

Here’s what happened in a nutshell, according to KHOU: An independent lab would test the water for radioactive contaminants and submit the data, as is standard, with a margin of error built-in. Rather than report the full results to the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would always pick the lower end of the margin of error in an apparent attempt to keep water utilities from exceeding federal radiation limits.

KHOU has a helpful analogy:

Ozonoff says an easy way to understand what TCEQ did was to think of a political poll during election season. He suggests, if political pollsters measured the president’s popularity at 50 percent, plus or minus 5 percent, the president’s popularity rating would be reported as 50 percent. He says you would not report the president’s popularity as 45- or 55 percent, or risk being seen as being biased toward one political party.

However, when it comes to radiation in drinking water, Ozonoff says, if there should have been any bias at all, it should have leaned conservatively toward protecting human health (which would have meant adding in the margin of error, if any calculations were to be performed at all).

And it gets worse. In 2000, the EPA explicitly told TCEQ to stop playing games with the margin of error. But for nine more years, TCEQ continued the practice, until a 2009 EPA audit finally put a stop to it. Is this what Rick Perry means when he talks about standing up to the feds?

How can TCEQ defend this? Well, judging from the interview TCEQ staffer Linda Brookins gave KHOU they can’t. Take a look. The money shot is about 1:50 from the end.

KHOU: “What would you tell me if I told you that I have talked with numerous scientists across the nation that would say that what TCEQ did was bad science?”

Brookins: “Well, I guess I would have no comment on that.”

“I do not believe that what TCEQ was doing at that time has impacted human health,” she added.

KHOU also asked Brookins about the state’s continued subtractions for margin of error, even after the EPA published a federal rule banning the practice.

KHOU: “Did you happen to skip over page 76,727 of the federal rule? Because right here in 2000 EPA told you, ‘don’t subtract margin of error.’ Did you skip that part?”

Brookins: “It doesn’t say not to subtract.”

KHOU: “It doesn’t?”

Brookins: “It is silent.”

KHOU: “I’d like you to hold this in your hand for a moment and read the part underlined in blue.”

Brookins: “I’m not going to do that on camera.

Of course not.

Enjoy this story? Want to support the writer? We are a journalism non-profit that relies on readers—not corporations or special interests—so we can always tell the unvarnished truth. Help us keep up the fight for Texas by donating to our tip jar.