Elevated levels of radium have been detected in groundwater at three monitoring wells drilled at Central Boulevard Elementary School in Bethpage, but state officials said the water is not used for drinking and does not pose a health risk to students, staff or faculty.
The wells were drilled earlier this year after samples from monitoring sites at Bethpage High School also detected radium levels above drinking-water standards.
“We don’t see any immediate health risks from the detection of radium in the water,” said Martin Brand, deputy commissioner for remediation and materials management for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The samples were collected on Aug. 18.
Levels of total radium at the elementary school were between 9.68 and 32.15 picocuries per liter. At the high school, which is less than two miles north, concentrations in the new samples were between 6.48 and 27.7 picocuries per liter, according to DEC, roughly the same as had been detected in the earlier tests.
The state drinking-water standard for total radium is 5 picocuries per liter. (The term is a measure not of mass but of radioactive decay; pico denotes a trillionth.)
Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that in the past was used in some industrial processes. The source of the elevated readings is not yet clear.
Both schools are within the boundaries of plumes of groundwater polluted with volatile organic compounds that have been traced back to when the Navy and what is now Northrop Grumman operated on a 600-acre parcel in Bethpage from the 1930s to 1990s to support war and space-exploration efforts.
“Even though this does not pose a risk to the public, they need to study this,” said Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis. “I would think seeing numbers like that — that’s not naturally occurring.”
The groundwater sampled was between 43 and 57 feet beneath the surface. The samples were split and sent to two laboratories for independent verification.
“Out of abundance of caution, DEC will continue to work with the school district to routinely monitor and inform the public on environmental conditions in the area,” Brand said.
“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,” Bethpage School officials said in a statement released Friday.
Schools Superintendent Terrence Clark told Newsday the district has spent $200,000 on the test wells and this summer installed a vapor barrier at the elementary school to block contaminants from escaping into the air. Sampling for radon — a byproduct of the decay of radium — was also done and the results should released in about two weeks.
“This is something the school district really should not have had to take on,” said Jeanne O’Connor, who lives in Bethpage and co-founded Bethpage Cancer Project to document cancer and autoimmune diseases of residents. “The DEC failed us. They should have been doing this from the start.”
O’Connor said a source needs to be found so it can be cleaned up. “If it is coming from Grumman, how much is there?,” she said. “We need to know how big this is going to be. Are we going to be having radon in our homes?”
A call to Northrop Grumman on Friday was not returned.
This is the latest development in the ongoing saga of groundwater and soil contamination in the area.
Groundwater contamination was first documented at the Navy/Grumman site in the 1940s and it was added to the state Superfund list in 1983.
It is subject to several state cleanup plans to remove contaminated soil and groundwater. Much of the focus has been on volatile organic chemicals but the detection of radium in groundwater has sparked additional concerns.
In 2013, Bethpage Water District took a well at its Sophia Street location offline because of elevated radium levels.
In 2015, the school district installed three monitoring wells at the high school, which is across the street from Bethpage Community Park, the site of one of the DECs cleanup plans.
After the high school detections were announced in June, DEC said it would work with the district to sample again. The agency also screened fields and grassy areas at the school campus and the community park for radioactive materials at ground level. None were detected.
Brand said the new information about the Central Boulevard school, nearly two miles from the high school, was another piece of data to include in their ongoing probe.
“We still think there’s a strong chance that most of this radium we are seeing in the area is naturally occurring but we are doing a deeper dive with Grumman,” Brand said. “We’re not ready to make a firm conclusion on the source of the radium. Our investigation will continue.”
- Radium is a radioactive metal that exists as one of several isotopes, with half-lives ranging from days to more than a thousand years.
- Unstable, it is formed when uranium and thorium decay, and itself breaks down into other elements including radon.
- It occurs naturally in the environment and is found at low levels in soil, water, rocks, coal, plants, and food.
- Radium was once used make luminous paints for watch dials, clocks and military instruments, a practice that was stopped because of health concerns.
- Exposure over long periods can elevate the risk of developing cancer.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency