Startling new research
in the peer-reviewed Environmental Science & Technology
shows that fossil groundwater in southern Jordan is radioactive at levels up to 2000% higher than the international drinking water standard. That the radioactivity is naturally occurring is little consolation for Jordanians—and perhaps for residents of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya, who sit atop the same sandstone Nubian aquifer system.
The shocking findings in “High Naturally Occurring Radioactivity in Fossil Groundwater from the Middle East” by Duke University’s Avner Vengosh and colleagues should be cause for major concern. As Vengosh, a geo-chemistry professor with long-standing research collaborations with Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian colleagues, wrote in an email: “Most of the Jordanian population is not using the fossil water for drinking—for now. Only few thousand people in Aqaba and Karak might be currently exposed to this water. However, Jordan has launched a huge water project to transfer the water from the aquifer in the south to the capital Amman, which would expose a large population to this water.”
According to Vengosh, although these specific findings are limited to the water groundwater under in Jordan, Saudi Arabia is using groundwater from the same aquifer (the Saq) extensively, mostly for agriculture but also for drinking. In this arid part of the world, countries have turned to nonrenewable fossil groundwater as one of the few remaining options. As stated in the article’s abstract, “These findings raise concerns about the safety of this and similar nonrenewable groundwater reservoirs, exacerbating the already severe water crisis in the Middle East.”
Vengosh shared the findings with Jordanian authorities ahead of publication. While it is hard to predict the social, economic, and political reactions to this news, it is easier to anticipate the effects of sustained consumption of water contaminated with radium isotopes. Vengosh says exposure to much lower levels of radium resulted in higher frequencies of bone cancer in a New Jersey community.
Photo: Avner Vengosh. Copyright Duke University Photography.