What Is Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM)?

You might be surprised to discover there’s radioactivity all around us. From the rocks beneath our feet to the food we eat, small amounts of radioactive elements occur naturally in the environment.  These are referred to as naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). While generally harmless in low quantities, NORM becomes a concern when human activities concentrate or relocate it.

Where Do We Find NORM?

NORM is prevalent in a variety of industries and settings you might not expect:

Oil and Gas 

NORM is frequently encountered in oil and gas production, particularly within the “produced water” that comes up during oil extraction. As this water flows through underground formations rich in uranium and thorium, it can pick up trace amounts of radioactive materials. These materials then concentrate in scales, sludges, and other waste products, forming deposits on pipelines, tanks, and other equipment.


The extraction and processing of ores containing uranium, thorium, or other radioactive elements can create NORM-rich waste materials. This is especially true in the mining of phosphate or other minerals where the NORM concentration might get enhanced along with the target material.

Water Treatment

Some water treatment facilities, especially those treating groundwater, use filtration processes that trap minerals rich in NORM. These filtration materials can become contaminated with NORM, requiring careful handling and disposal.

Construction and Building 

Certain building materials, most notably granite, phosphate-based fertilizers, and some types of bricks or tiles, might contain slightly higher levels of naturally occurring radioactive elements. While the risk from these materials in homes is typically low, it’s something to be aware of, especially in areas with naturally higher background radiation.

Other Industries

NORM can also be found in smaller quantities in industries like:

  • Coal-Fired Power Plants: Coal can contain trace amounts of radioactive elements, which can concentrate in waste products like fly ash.
  • Metal Smelting and Foundries: Some processes involve ores and materials that might be naturally higher in NORM.

Why Is NORM a Potential Problem?

While naturally occurring, NORM becomes a concern when human activities concentrate it to levels exceeding naturally occurring background radiation. Here’s why:

Ionizing Radiation

NORM emits ionizing radiation, which has enough energy to disrupt atoms and damage cells in living tissue. Long-term exposure to even moderately elevated levels of ionizing radiation increases the risk of health issues, including cancer.

Exposure Pathways

Potential exposure routes to concentrated NORM include:

  • Inhalation: Workers working with NORM-contaminated dusts, scales, or sludges can inhale radioactive particles, exposing their lungs and internal organs.
  • Ingestion: Accidental ingestion can occur if particles are transferred to food or if workers don’t follow safe hygiene practices.
  • External Exposure: Even without directly inhaling or ingesting NORM, prolonged proximity to contaminated items can lead to external exposure to radiation.
  • Environmental Impact: Improper disposal of NORM waste can contaminate soil, groundwater, and ecosystems, potentially spreading the problem to a much wider area.

The Texas Factor

As a major hub for oil and gas production, Texas faces a particular NORM management challenge. The sheer volume of extraction activities increases the possibility of NORM concentration, making careful handling and disposal even more critical to protect workers, communities, and the state’s environment.

It’s important to emphasize that the dangers of NORM are heavily dependent on the concentration, the duration of exposure, and the specific types of radioactive elements involved.

Identifying NORM

The primary challenge in dealing with NORM lies in its initial identification. NORM doesn’t have a distinct smell, color, or any other easily noticeable characteristic. It can be present in various materials without giving any outward indication. This means relying on specialized equipment and techniques to detect the presence of ionizing radiation, such as:

  • Geiger Counters: These handheld devices are a common first line of detecting radiation. They measure overall levels of radiation, helping pinpoint potential problem areas.
  • Gamma Spectroscopy: Advanced laboratory analysis is often needed to accurately determine the specific types of radioactive elements present in NORM and their concentrations.

Potential Indicators of NORM Contamination

While direct detection is necessary for confirmation, there are some clues that might suggest the possible presence of NORM. Note that these indicators are just that: indicators. They increase the potential for NORM contamination but do not guarantee it. Only specialized radiation detection can ultimately confirm or rule out the presence of NORM.

Industry and Process

Industries known to handle materials potentially containing NORM (oil and gas, mining, water treatment) are the obvious starting point for concern. Specific processes within those industries, like scale removal in oil pipelines, are higher-probability areas.

Origin of Materials

Materials extracted from deep underground, especially from areas with naturally occurring uranium and thorium deposits, have a higher likelihood of containing elevated NORM levels.

Historical Knowledge

If a facility has a history of handling materials associated with NORM or has operated in locations known for higher background radiation levels, past contamination may be present.

Safe NORM Waste Disposal

Appropriate handling, transportation, and disposal of NORM waste are crucial. Failure to do so can lead to environmental contamination and potential health risks. Companies like TAS (Texas ALP) specialize in all aspects of NORM management, including:

NORM identification and assessment. Expert technicians use advanced tools to analyze materials and determine the extent of NORM contamination.

NORM decontamination services. When items or areas become contaminated, TAS has the expertise to clean them safely and effectively.

NORM transportation and disposal. TAS has the permits and expertise to transport NORM waste to approved disposal facilities ensuring that all state and federal regulations are followed.

Managing NORM Responsibly in Texas, With TAS Environmental

Industries that generate NORM waste have a responsibility to ensure its safe management. Partnering with a reputable NORM waste disposal provider like TAS is critical for ensuring compliance with regulations and maintaining a safe work environment.

Don’t wait until a NORM problem arises — take proactive measures to protect your operations and the environment. If you work in an industry where NORM is a possibility, here’s what to do:

Worker Training. Educate staff on NORM basics, how to identify potential contamination, and the necessary safety protocols.

Regular Testing. Routine testing can help identify NORM issues before they become significant problems.

Partner with Professionals, Companies like TAS Environmental provide the expertise and services needed to manage NORM safely and responsibly.

If you suspect NORM might be a concern at your facility, don’t hesitate to reach out to the professionals at TAS Environmental. We’ll guide you through everything from identification to disposal, protecting your business and your workers.