Elevated levels of radium have been found in groundwater samples from shallow monitoring wells on the Bethpage High School campus and the state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to take more samples and scan field and soil areas there for more radioactive elements.
State and school officials stressed Wednesday that they do not believe students, teachers, faculty members or visitors are at risk, because the wells sampled groundwater and are not used to supply drinking water. The school is hooked up to the Bethpage Water District system.
“We don’t think there’s an immediate health scare,” said Martin Brand, the DEC’s deputy commissioner for remediation and materials management. “No one is drinking the water.”
Radium, a naturally occurring element that was once used to make the dials of watches and instruments luminescent, breaks down over time into other elements including radon, a radioactive gas. But air tests in the school did not detect elevated levels of the gas.
The high school, which opened in 1960, is across the street from Bethpage Community Park, the site of an intense cleanup plan to remove a plume of volatile organic chemicals from groundwater and other contaminants from the soil.
It is one of several cleanup plans related to hazardous waste plumes left behind in Bethpage, where the U.S. Navy and what now is Northrop Grumman, researched, tested and manufactured military aircraft and space exploration equipment from the mid-1930s until the mid-90s.
Exposure to radium can cause bone cancer and exposure to radon can cause lung cancer, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Low concentrations occur naturally in soil, water and plants.
Two years ago, the district installed three monitoring wells on school grounds, primarily to test for the kind of contaminants found in the plume coming from the park. This year they asked the district’s environmental consultant, Hauppauge-based J.C. Broderick & Associates Inc., to test for radium because it had been found nearby, within the water district serving the school, a spokeswoman for the district said.
The water samples were taken in February. After finding the elevated levels of radium, the firm advised testing for radon, which was done in April.
The results were discussed at a May 30 school board meeting.
Late Tuesday, the district posted a statement on its website about the findings. It said the groundwater tested was 60 feet below the surface. The statement did not give exact numbers of the test results.
“The board of education has been actively engaged on this issue for several years and has authorized testing that goes far beyond what is typical of a school district,” Superintendent Terrence Clark said in a statement Wednesday. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our students and staff and the results to date have demonstrated we have no immediate health concerns in any of our schools.”
Clark, through the district’s public-relations firm, refused a request for an interview.
Radon testing is also being done at the middle school and Central Boulevard Elementary school, both of which are within boundaries of the Navy and Northrop Grumman plumes. Two other elementary schools outside of the plumes will be tested at a later date.
Tests at the three wells detected total radium concentrations of between 10 and nearly 25 picocuries per liter, the district spokeswoman said.
Safe drinking water regulations set the threshold of exposure at a maximum of 5 picocuries per liter.
Residents should not be concerned because the radium is in groundwater 60 feet deep, no one is drinking it and the cancer risk is considered low, said Norman J. Kleiman, director of master’s degree programs in radiological sciences and toxicology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“Radiation is a particularly weak carcinogen,” he said.
A person would have to drink two liters a day of water contaminated with 25 picocuries per liter of radium for 50 years to have a 5-in-10,000 risk of dying of bone cancer, Kleiman said.
Still, Kleiman suggested the area be monitored and surface soils be scanned for radium.
“Let’s see if we can find a measurable source . . . It could be a natural phenomenon,” he said.
DEC last year asked Northrop Grumman to report on past use of radionuclides, or radioactive elements, at the site. In a statement, the agency said based on the response there is no evidence radioactive materials were used during manufacturing.
The investigation for the source of the radium in the area is ongoing, Brand said.
DEC is working with the district’s environmental consultant to retest the water and confirm the results, which is common practice. It also plans to scan surface soils at the school, he said.
“We think it’s important to close the loop of information for the school,” Brand said.
Water quality has long been an issue in the area. Contamination was first discovered in the 1940s and the state added the site to its Superfund program in the 1980s.
In 2012, the school district tested air quality in the high school and in Central Boulevard Elementary School.
In 2013, the Bethpage Water District shut down one of its drinking-supply wells after elevated levels of radium were detected.
Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis said he had talked with the DEC and the state Department of Health about the school’s findings and the radium issue in the district.
He said the levels found at the well that the water district closed down and at the school are higher than what has normally been found.
“My concern is what’s three feet deep,” he said.
- Discovered by French physicist Marie Curie
- Occurs naturally in low levels in rock, soil, water, plants and animals
- Considered a carcinogen
- Naturally radioactive, Radium-226, the most common isotope, has a half-life of about 1,600 years. Radium-228 has half-life of 5.76 years
- Widely used during World War II because its luminescence allowed aircraft dials, gauges and instruments to be seen at night