Water softeners to the rescue?
POE devices can eliminate radium problems if tough legal wrinkles can be ironed out.
Related Information
Radium problems in Illinois
What is radium?
By R.J. DeLuke, Managing Editor

Some communities in the Midwest are facing the problem of getting radium out of the drinking water, and health risks aside, it could become a major economic headache.

Radium isn't found in high amounts in most of the country, water industry experts say, but there are certain pockets in the country Illinois and parts of Wisconsin, in particular that need to deal with it.

The scientific answer, according to the Water Quality Association (WQA), is simple: water softeners.

The political answer is not as simple. Unless state officials can come to terms with that answer by changing the regulations to spell out specifically that Point-of-Entry water softeners are an accepted treatment, it could cost many small communities millions of dollars to install central treatment systems, the WQA said.

If softeners can get clearance in the appropriate federal guidance, it could open up a big market in these affected areas for POE dealers.

Not so simple

If the issue sounds simple enough, it isn't.

Joe Harrison, WQA technical director, said "it's iron clad that a water softener takes radium out of the water, and that's a fundamental product in the industry."


"It's impossible for a functioning water softener to allow radium through," said Earl Wilkinson, a veteran EcoWater dealer in Geneva, IN, who was instrumental in raising the issue with both Illinois and US officials, seeking clearance to get the POE devices approved for use.

Harrison said US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials agree, and even state officials can see the scientific logic, but there are regulatory hoops to jump through.

He said he hoped the matter can be straightened out soon, because these small communities are facing a December 2003 deadline to get radium out of their drinking water.

States are cautious

The problem, both Wilkinson and Harrison agree, is that state regulatory agencies are unwilling to go against the wording of federal water quality regulations. They are worried that if anything happened, they would be liable.

So even if the EPA states outright that water softeners are the appropriate solution, unless the actual wording is changed, or something lese concrete is done to ease their fears, states are not willing to allow in-home treatment for radium removal.

"The regulation is in place, but it's vague," said Wilkinson. "It's a federal law, but state enforced. The state is being careful about lawsuits."

Millions could be saved

Wilkinson has been working on the problem for a long time, trying to get the regulators to see the water softeners are "a very viable solution to the problem."

He said putting a softener in each home will "save millions of dollars for communities."

Central treatment systems are very expensive and the cost, spread among small municipalities, would be unbearable.

In the community of Royal Melbourne, IL, for example, Harrison said, it could cost up to $1 million for this tiny community to install central treatment plant for radium removal. The plant would be treating more water than it needs to, since it would cover water for all uses, not just drinking water.

The WQA also estimated that customers would be charged about $5,800 for the plant, plus a monthly maintenance fee. Other communities face similar daunting figures, some much worse, Wilkinson said.

A softener, Harrison said, would cost the homeowner about $30-$35 per month.

For that sum, the resident is guaranteed that radium is removed, as long as the softener itself is in working order.

Harrison said numerous studies have been done that conclusively prove the effectiveness of water softeners in removing radium. WQA is planning to do a series of demonstrations in Illinois to further prove the point.

"It's a good way for us to break the ice on home water treatment so regulators get over their anxieties," Harrison said.

Regulatory bumps

The problem, he said, is that the federal regulations regarding radium removal were not written with home treatment in mind.

It calls for sampling of water at every entry point of the distribution system. When that is applied to home treatment, it makes each home a site that has to be tested.

"We've argued that you don't have to sample them all," Harrison said, and WQA is pushing to get the testing changed.

Rather than pay for an expensive and complicated radium test at each home, he said the issue is simple. Radium cannot get through a working softener; if the softener is working, it must be removing the radium.

So, simply test to make sure the softener is functioning a far simpler, and far less expensive surrogate test.

That has not flown in regulatory circles as yet.

EPA agrees

Changing regulations is very difficult, Harrison acknowledged, but EPA is working on a guidance, which, if written appropriately, may ease the fears of state regulatory agencies and clear the path for acceptance of softeners.

He said WQA has been working with the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to get the necessary changes implemented.


"Radium doesn't exist uniformly," said Harrison. "Illinois has the most. Some 75 towns have it" and are facing the EPA deadline. Belts of radium also extend into Wisconsin.

"Right now, the EPA is in favor of finding a way to make it work," Harrison said. "On the local level, people have anxieties."

"There's been a lull," Wilkinson said of the issue. The federal guidance for POU/POE needs to come out "so states can feel comfortable accepting this as a solution. They have to feel comfortable with their liability position."

Wilkinson noted that in order for a softener to be eventually accepted, once the other details are ironed out, it will have to have a warning device on it to indicate when the softener is not working.

Proponents of the change are basically upbeat that softeners will be approved, but no one is speculating about the timetable.

From the September 2002 edition of Water Technology magazine.