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Public Health Rep. 1997 Jul-Aug;112(4):308-16; discussion 317-8.

Radioactivity in municipal sewage and sludge.

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Department of Environmental and Industrial Health, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 48109, USA.



To determine the environmental consequences of discharges of radioactivity from a large medical research facility into municipal sewage, specifically 131I activity in sewage sludge, and the radiation exposures to workers and the public when sludges are incinerated.


The authors measured radioactivity levels in the sludge at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Waste Water Treatment Plant following radioiodine treatments of two patients at the University of Michigan hospital complex and performed a series of calculations to estimate potential radiation doses due to releases of 131I from incineration of sewage sludge.


Approximately 1.1% of the radioactive 131I administered therapeutically to patients was measured in the primary sludge. Radiation doses from incineration of sludge were calculated to be 0.048 millirem (mrem) for a worker during a period in which the incinerator filtration system failed, a condition that could be considered to represent maximum exposure conditions, for two nine-hour days. Calculated results for a more typically exposed worker (with the filtration system in operation and a 22-week period of incineration) yielded a committed effective dose equivalent of 0.066 mrem. If a worker were exposed to both conditions during the period of incineration, the dose was calculated to be 0.11 mrem. For a member of the public, the committed effective dose equivalent was calculated as 0.003 mrem for a 22-week incineration period. Exposures to both workers and the public were a very small fraction of a typical annual dose (about 100 mrem excluding radon, or 300 mrem with radon) due to natural background radiation. Transport time to the treatment plant for radioiodine was found to be much longer than that of a normal sewage, possibly due to absorption of iodine by organic material in the sewer lines. The residence time of radioiodine in the sewer also appears to be longer than expected.


131I in land-applied sludge presents few health concerns because sufficient decay occurs before it can reach the public however, incineration, which is done in winter months, directly releases the 131I from sewage sludge to the atmosphere, and even though exposures to both workers and the public were found to be considerably lower than 1% of natural background, incineration of sludge in a pathway for public exposure. Although 131I was readily measurable in sewage sludge, only about 1% of the radioione administered to patients was found in the sludge. The fate of the remaining radioactivity has not been established; some may be in secondary and tertiary residuals, but it is quite likely that most passed through the plant and was discharged in dilute concentrations in plant emissions. The behavior of radioiodine and other radioactive materials released into municipal seweage systems, such as those from large medical facilities, is not yet well understood.

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