Selenium is a metal found in natural deposits as ores containing other elements. The greatest use of selenium compounds is in electronic and photocopier components, but they are also widely used in glass, pigments, rubber, metal alloys, textiles, petroleum, medical therapeutic agents, and photographic emulsions.
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water which do or may cause health problems. These non-enforceable levels, based solely on possible health risks and exposure, are called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals.
The MCLG for selenium has been set at 0.05 parts per million (ppm) because EPA believes this level of protection would not cause any of the potential health problems described below.
Based on this MCLG, EPA has set an enforceable standard called a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). MCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as possible, considering the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.
The MCL has been set at 0.05 ppm because EPA believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this contaminant should it occur in drinking water.
These drinking water standards and the regulations for ensuring these standards are met, are called National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. All public water supplies must abide by these regulations.
Short-term: Selenium is an essential nutrient at low levels. However, EPA has found selenium to potentially cause the following health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time: hair and fingernail changes; damage to the peripheral nervous system; fatigue and irritability.
Long-term: Selenium has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: hair and fingernail loss; damage to kidney and liver tissue, and the nervous and circulatory systems.
How much Selenium is produced and released to the environment?
Production in 1985 was reported to be 429,515 pounds. Selenium compounds are released to the air during the combustion of coal and petroleum fuels, and during the smelting and refining of other metals.
From 1987 to 1993, according to the Toxics Release Inventory selenium releases to land and water totaled over 1 million lbs. These releases were primarily from copper smelting industries. The largest releases occurred in Utah. The largest direct releases to water occurred in Indiana.
The toxicity of selenium depends on whether it is in the biologically active oxidized form, which occurs in alkaline soils. These conditions can cause plant uptake of the metal to be increased. It is known that selenium accumulates in living tissues.
The regulation for selenium became effective in 1992. Between 1993 and 1995, EPA required your water supplier to collect water samples once and analyze them to find out if selenium is present above 0.05 ppm. If it is present above this level, the system must continue to monitor this contaminant every 3 months.
If contaminant levels are found to be consistently above the MCL, your water supplier must take steps to reduce the amount of selenium so that it is consistently below that level. The following treatment methods have been approved by EPA for removing selenium: Activated Alumina, Coagulation/Filtration, Lime Softening, Reverse Osmosis.
If the levels of selenium exceed the MCL, the system must notify the public via newspapers, radio, TV and other means. Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required to prevent serious risks to public health.