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Radionuclides in the Ecosystem

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This page provides an overview of radionuclides in the ecosystem.

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An ecosystem is defined as a place having unique physical features, encompassing air, water, and land, and habitats that support plant and animal life. Radioactive elements, called radionuclides, are part of our ecosystem because they are a part of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

Ecosystem science focuses on the whole—the interaction among the water, air, land, and plants, animals and humans. Ecosystem science tells a story about elements in nature and their journey through the different natural systems that exist on Earth. Here is the general story of radionuclides in our ecosystem:

A tree’s roots digs down into a crack in the earth, prying the rock apart and turning the rock into soil. The rock contained radionuclides that, through this process, have now been brought to the surface.

Whether the radionuclides are natural or man-made, they move through the earth and can become part of the food chain. For example:

Animals consume these plants, drink the water and breathe the air. The radionuclides are now in the animals.

Humans eat the plants and the animals that ate the plants, drink the water and breathe the air. The radionuclides also are in humans.

The remains of plants and animals are returned to the earth and, over time, are crushed and pressured back into rock and the cycle begins again.

Radiological incidents, such as the 1986 nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, add large amounts of man-made radiation to an ecosystem. Recent studies on the ecology of the Chernobyl region have shown that, in the twenty years since the accident, the region’s ecosystem is rebounding and beginning to function normally. This means that ecosystems may be able to rid themselves of excess radiation.

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Who is protecting you

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA’s RadNet monitoring system is a national network of monitoring stations that regularly collect air, precipitation, drinking water, and milk samples for analysis of radioactivity.

EPA also develops standards for disposal of nuclear waste and in some cases, oversees the disposal of radioactive material.

EPA’s Protective Action Guides protect the public in radiological emergencies and including actions to prevent exposure from contaminated soil and food.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

USDA monitors efforts to store radioactive waste that might impact the nation’s food chain. USDA works with the U.S. Geological Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that radioactive materials are disposed in places that prevent the radioactive material from ever entering the food chain.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

FDA monitors naturally-occuring and man-made radionuclides in food as part of its Total Diet Studies.

FDA establishes guidelines for preventing and addressing potentially contaminated crops and livestock during a radiological emergency.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

DOE’s Department of Environmental Management issues regulations related to spills, releases, and cleanup of radiation in the soil on and around DOE facilities. DOE requires its facilities to limit how much radiation may be released, and it ensures that all facility operators comply with these standards.

The States

The States have a variety of programs relating to the protection of soil, crops and livestock. States apply EPA’s Protective Action Guides in the event of a radiological emergency. Some states have created more stringent standards for disposal of radioactive material than the federal limits established by EPA.

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What you can do to protect yourself

In most cases, the radionuclides are natural and pose little threat to your health.

In a radiological emergency where food contamination may be an issue, listen for advisories from your Federal, state or local public health officials.

Common food processing safety actions can be taken to reduce the amount of radioactive contamination in or on food such as washing, brushing or peeling the surface of the fruits or vegetables.

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Guidance on the Land Disposal Restrictions’ Effects on Storage and Disposal of Commercial Mixed-Waste 
May 22, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Radiation Protection
This site provides an overview of the land disposal restrictions as they apply to mixed-wastes.
Radioactivity in Nature  exit EPA
May 22, 2012. The Health Physics Society, University of Michigan
This page provides an overview of annual estimated average radiation dose and sources of radiation.
The ecological effects of the Chernobyl disaster exit EPA
May 22, 2012. Ecological Society of America, Medical News Today
This page provides information on a session at the Ecological Society of America’s August 2005 meeting that explored how the environment responded to the Chernobyl accident.
Directory of Agreement State and Non-Agreement State Directors and State Liaison Officers
May 22, 2012. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
This site provides a list of Nuclear Regulatory Commission Agreement and Non-Agreement State contacts.
Federal, State and Tribal Liaison Programs
May 22, 2012. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
This page lists links to federal, state and tribal nuclear program information.

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