News Feature | May 1, 2017

Nuclear Contamination Reaches Earth's Deepest Water, Could Affect Billions

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Billions of people may face a threat posed by radioactive materials in water.

“A shocking new study has revealed that groundwater drunk by billions of people may have been contaminated by decades of nuclear weapons testing. Researchers looked at more than 6,000 wells around the globe, some containing water more than 10,000 years old, found more than half had traces of tritium,” the Daily Mail reported.

“Even at low doses, tritium has been linked with increased risk of mutation and cancer because it goes directly into the tissues of organs of the human body,” the report continued.

The study was led by Scott Jasechko of the University of Calgary in Canada. It was published online in Nature Geoscience on April 25, and the university released a statement about the research.

Tritium was spread during nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s, Science News reported, citing the study.

Professor James Kirchner, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, said, per the Daily Mail: “Roughly half of the wells contained some fraction of recent groundwater less than 50 or 60 years old. It is a bit like going to a giant old people's home and suddenly realising there are lots of kids running around. That is great, except if the little kids have the flu!”

The upshot is that even groundwater buried so deep in the earth that is it is accessible by only the world’s deepest wells is not immune to modern contamination. Also known as fossil water, this resource began as snow and rain that fell more than 12,000 years ago.

The scientific community previously believed that fossil water was not contaminated.

"The unfortunate finding is that even though deep wells pump mostly fossil groundwater, many still contain some recent rain and snow melt, which is vulnerable to modern contamination," Jasechko said in a statement. "Our results imply that water quality in deep wells can be impacted by the land management decisions we make today."

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.