A critical review on the occurrence and distribution of the uranium- and thorium-decay nuclides and their effect on the quality of groundwater

Avner Vengosh, Rachel M. Coyte, Joel Podgorski, Thomas M. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This critical review presents the key factors that control the occurrence of natural elements from the uranium- and thorium-decay series, also known as naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), including uranium, radium, radon, lead, polonium, and their isotopes in groundwater resources. Given their toxicity and radiation, elevated levels of these nuclides in drinking water pose human health risks, and therefore understanding the occurrence, sources, and factors that control the mobilization of these nuclides from aquifer rocks is critical for better groundwater management and human health protection. The concentrations of these nuclides in groundwater are a function of the groundwater residence time relative to the decay rates of the nuclides, as well as the net balance between nuclides mobilization (dissolution, desorption, recoil) and retention (adsorption, precipitation). This paper explores the factors that control this balance, including the relationships between the elemental chemistry (e.g., solubility and speciation), lithological and hydrogeological factors, groundwater geochemistry (e.g., redox state, pH, ionic strength, ion-pairs availability), and their combined effects and interactions. The various chemical properties of each of the nuclides results in different likelihoods for co-occurrence. For example, the primordial 238U, 222Rn, and, in cases of high colloid concentrations also 210Po, are all more likely to be found in oxic groundwater. In contrast, in reducing aquifers, Ra nuclides, 210Pb, and in absence of high colloid concentrations, 210Po, are more mobile and frequently occur in groundwater. In highly permeable sandstone aquifers that lack sufficient adsorption sites, Ra is often enriched, even in low salinity and oxic groundwater. This paper also highlights the isotope distributions, including those of relatively long-lived nuclides (238U/235U) with abundances that depend on geochemical conditions (e.g., fractionation induced from redox processes), as well as shorter-lived nuclides (234U/238U, 228Ra/226Ra, 224Ra/228Ra, 210Pb/222Rn, 210Po/210Pb) that are strongly influenced by physical (recoil), lithological, and geochemical factors. Special attention is paid in evaluating the ability to use these isotope variations to elucidate the sources of these nuclides in groundwater, mechanisms of their mobilization from the rock matrix (e.g., recoil, ion-exchange), and retention into secondary mineral phases and ion-exchange sites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number151914
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Feb 20 2022


  • Aquifers
  • Geogenic contamination
  • Groundwater
  • Lead
  • NORMs
  • Polonium
  • Radiation
  • Radium
  • Radon
  • Uranium
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry


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