Human Health and the Biological Effects of Tritium in Drinking Water: Prudent Policy through Science – Addressing the ODWAC New Recommendation Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen and is a by-product of energy production in Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors. The release of this radioisotope into the environment is carefully managed at CANDU facilities in order to minimize radiation exposure to the public. However, under some circumstances, small accidental releases to the environment can occur. The radiation doses to humans and non-human biota from these releases are low and orders of magnitude less than doses received from naturally occurring radioisotopes or from manmade activities, such as medical imaging and air travel. There is however a renewed interest in the biological consequences of low dose tritium exposures and a new limit for tritium levels in Ontario drinking water has been proposed. The Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council (ODWAC) issued a formal report in May 2009 in response to a request by the Minister of the Environment, concluding that the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard for tritium should be revised from the current 7,000 Bq/L level to a new, lower 20 Bq/L level. In response to this recommendation, an international scientific symposium was held at McMaster University to address the issues surrounding this change in direction and the validity of a new policy. Scientists, regulators, government officials, and industrial stakeholders were present to discuss the potential health risks associated with low level radiation exposure from tritium. The regulatory, economic, and social implications of the new proposed limit were also considered.The new recommendation assumed a linear-no-threshold model to calculate carcinogenic risk associated with tritium exposure, and considered tritium as a non-threshold chemical carcinogen. Both of these assumptions are highly controversial given that recent research suggests that low dose exposures have thresholds below which there are no observable detrimental effects. Furthermore, mutagenic and carcinogenic risk calculated from tritium exposure at 20 Bq/L would be orders of magnitude less than that from exposure to natural background sources of radiation. The new proposed standard would set the radiation dose limit for drinking water to 0.0003 mSv/year, which is equivalent to approximately three times the dose from naturally occurring tritium in drinking water. This new standard is incongruent with national and international standards for safe levels of radiation exposure, currently set at 1 mSv/year for the general public. Scientific research from leading authorities on the carcinogenic health effects of tritium exposure supports the notion that the current standard of 7,000 Bq/L (annual dose of 0.1 mSv) is a safe standard for human health.Policy-making for the purpose of regulating tritium levels in drinking water is a dynamic multi-stage process that is influenced by more than science alone. Ethics, economics, and public perception also play important roles in policy development; however, these factors sometimes undermine the scientific evidence that should form the basis of informed decision making. Consequently, implementing a new standard without a scientific basis may lead the public to perceive that risks from tritium have been historically underestimated. It was concluded that the new recommendation is not supported by any new scientific insight regarding negative consequences of low dose effects, and may be contrary to new data on the potential benefits of low dose effects. Given the lack of cost versus benefit analysis, this type of dramatic policy change could have detrimental effects to society from an ethical, economical, and public perception perspective.

publication date

  • January 2011