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Drinking water analyses

Overview of tests and assessments


• Total alpha- and beta-radioactivity
• Tritium
• Radon-222
• Radium-226 and radium-228
• Uranium
• Gamma-emitting nuclides
• Dose assessment

Total alpha- and beta-radioactivity


ISO 17025: This test is included within the scope of the laboratory’s accreditation.

Introduction
Radionuclides likely to be encountered in drinking water emit alpha- or beta-radiation, and an
indication of the significance of radioactivity levels can be obtained by the fairly simple
measurement of the total amounts of these emissions without the need for complicated
analyses of individual contaminants. Such total radioactivity measurements can be
performed rapidly and cost-effectively.

Method
An aliquot of water is evaporated to a small volume and transferred to a glass vial in which it is
evaporated to dryness. The residue is dissolved in a dilute mineral acid and a small volume of
scintillator solution added. The radioactivity level is determined by “liquid scintillation counting”
(LSC) which discriminates between alpha- and beta-particle emissions. This method does not
include gaseous radon or its immediate decay products, and a separate method is required
for these.

Minimum detectable concentration


Analytical results are expressed as becquerels (Bq) per litre for each of the emission types
(1 Bq = 1 nuclear transformation per second). The minimum detectable concentrations for total
alpha- and beta-radioactivity concentrations are 0.03 Bq/L and 0.2 Bq/L, respectively.

Sampling requirements
Sample volume 200 mL.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 5 working days from receipt of sample.

NRL Client information sheet


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Tritium
Introduction
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen (H-3) which decays with a half-life of 12.3 years
with the emission of beta radiation. Small amounts are produced naturally in the environment
by cosmic radiation. It is also produced in nuclear reactors and weapon detonations. Most
tritium found in the environment results from nuclear weapons testing before 1980. In water,
tritium forms part of the water molecule in place of a hydrogen atom (tritiated water) and it is
therefore readily assimilated by biological organisms.

Method
An aliquot of the water is mixed with a liquid scintillator in a glass vial and the tritium beta
emissions are counted by LSC together with those of a second sample spiked with a known
amount of tritium. The method may suffer from interferences from other beta-emitting
radionuclides but the regulatory limits for tritium are usually much higher than those of other
radionuclides (around 1 kBq/L) and any interferences are therefore insignificant.

Minimum detectable concentration


The minimum detectable concentration is 100 Bq/L.

Sampling requirements
Sample volume 100 mL.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 5 working days from receipt of sample.

NRL Client information sheet


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Radon-222
ISO 17025: This test is included within the scope of the laboratory’s accreditation.

Introduction
Radon-222 (222Rn) is a chemically inert noble gas which is the decay product of radium-226
(itself part of the natural uranium-238 radioactive decay series), decaying by alpha-particle
emission with a half-life of 3.8 days. As all rocks and soils contain 238U, artesian waters
inevitably contain 222Rn which dissolves in the water during its passage through subterranean
materials. Radon-222 itself decays through a series of short-lived radioactive isotopes of
polonium, lead and bismuth:

222 3.8 days 218 3.05 min 214 26.8 min 19.9 min 214
Rn Po Pb 214
Bi Po

The measurement of 222Rn involves the detection of the combined alpha-particle emissions
from the three alpha-emitters in this series (222Rn, 218Po and 214Po).

Method
An aliquot of the water sample is mixed with a liquid scintillator and alpha emissions counted
by LSC. The contribution of interfering alpha-emitting radionuclides is determined by
analysing a blank sample.

Sampling requirements
A water sampling kit comprising a one-litre polyethylene sampling bottle, tubing for filling
bottle and sampling instructions is supplied by NRL on request. A one-litre water sample
representative of the source should be collected. To minimise 222Rn loss, the sampling bottle
must be gently filled to the top, without agitation or aeration of the source water. The sample
must be shipped back to the NRL within 48 hours after sampling.

Minimum detectable concentration


The minimum detectable concentration for 222Rn is 2 Bq L-1 assuming delivery of the sample
within 48 hours. Resampling may be requested if there are delays in shipping to NRL.

Sampling requirements
Sample volume 100 mL. Samples must be transported in radon-proof sampling bottles. These
can be obtained from NRL.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 5 working days from receipt of sample.

NRL Client information sheet


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Radium-226 and Radium-228
Introduction
The radium isotopes radium-226 and radium-228 are members of the naturally occurring
uranium and thorium decay series. Radium is partially soluble in water and may therefore be
present in drinking waters from underground sources.

Method
The analytical method relies on the decay of the radium isotopes to their respective decay
products which emit gamma radiation. The radium is coprecipitated from the water with
barium sulphate and the collected precipitate is embedded in epoxy resin to trap the 222Rn
gas emanating from the 226Ra. After a resting period of thirty days, when the radon has
reached equilibrium with the 226Ra, the sample is analysed by detection of gamma-emitting
species, particularly 214Pb and 214Bi, by gamma spectrometry. Radium-228 concentrations
are determined in the same samples through detection of gamma emissions associated with
its decay product actinium-228.

Minimum detectable concentration


The minimum detectable concentration of each isotope is 0.05 Bq/L.

Sampling requirements
Sample volume 1000 mL.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 35 working days after receipt of sample.

NRL Client information sheet


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Uranium
Introduction
Three natural isotopes of uranium exist in the environment: 238U (half-life 4.47·109 a), 235U
(7.04·108 a) and 234U (2.45·105 a). These uranium isotopes are found in varying
concentrations throughout the Earth’s crust. Uranium is partially soluble in water, forming
strong complexes with carbonate ions, and is therefore rather mobile in the environment.

Method
The separation of the uranium isotopes from other radionuclides is performed by calcium
phosphate coprecipitation followed by extraction chromatography. Analysis of the recovered
uranium is performed by alpha spectrometry which distinguishes between alpha emissions
from the three isotopes.

Minimum detectable concentration


The minimum detectable concentration for each isotope is 0.01 Bq/L.

Sampling requirements
Sample volume 1000 mL.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 5 working days from receipt of sample.

NRL Client information sheet


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Gamma emitting nuclides
ISO 17025: This test is included within the scope of the laboratory’s accreditation.

Introduction
Many radionuclides emit gamma radiation during decay. The radiation is characteristic of
each radionuclide and may therefore be used for identification and quantification of nuclides.

Method
A 500 mL aliquot of the sample is analysed by high-resolution gamma spectrometry, without
any pretreatment.

Minimum detectable concentration


The minimum detectable concentration is radionuclide dependent.

Sampling requirements
Sample volume 1000 mL.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 5 working days from receipt of sample.

Dose assessment
Introduction
The ultimate purpose of drinking water regulations is protection from the harmful effects of
contaminants. Most regulations stipulate maximum allowable concentrations for a selection
of radionuclides and total alpha- and beta-radioactivity to allow fast decision making. Others
require a full dose assessment based on measured or estimated radionuclide concentrations.
Such an assessment clarifies whether the water is fit for human consumption.

Turnaround time
Turnaround time is 2 working days from completion of the necessary analyses.

NRL Client information sheet


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