Radon is a radioactive gas that does not have a color, odor, or taste. It occurs as a by-product of uranium decay. Uranium is a natural radioactive material that can be found in concrete, rocks, bricks, and soil. Radon disintegrates through short-lived decay products, known as “radon progeny.”
Radon progeny are present in the air and are often attached to dust—so you can literally breathe them in. Although there is a relatively low risk when radon is diluted into small concentrations in an open space, radon in “room air” can contribute to up to 50% of radiation.
Health Effects of Radon
High radon exposure is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. Radon is a noble gas (reactive compound), and is quickly exhaled after being breathed in. Radon progeny (decayed products) combined with other air molecules, such as dust particles and smoke, can be deposited in the airway of the lungs and become harmful. While it is wedged there, the progeny produces ionizing radiation in the form of the alpha-particles, which can harm the cells lining the airways.
Epidemiological studies (studies of certain living factors), have been conducted on uranium miners in different countries such as Germany, USA, and Canada, which support the fact that ionizing radiation can cause cancer. The miner studies included 68,000 men, 2,700 of which have died from lung cancer.
Exposure to radon in a household can also lead to lung cancer. It’s estimated that every year, more than 15,000 deaths from lung cancer are a result of radon exposure in the U.S., with over 2,500 deaths in the U.K.
If you smoke in your house, you’re already at an increased risk of lung cancer—but the risk increases with radon exposure. According to the U.S. National Academies of Science, men who smoke and are exposed to radon at work have a 10 times higher risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers.
The relationship between radon and the risk of developing lung cancer is linear. This means that if you double your exposure, you are doubling your risk; if you halve the exposure, you are halving your risk of getting lung cancer.
There is no sufficient evidence on whether children are more sensitive to radon exposure. Studies have been conducted attempting to associate leukemia with radon exposure in the home, but no clear evidence was found.
Radon in Drinking Water
About 95% of all radon exposure is from indoor air; one percent comes from drinking water. The majority of drinking water exposure comes from inhaling radon gas that is released from running water, such as showers. Approximately 0.1 percent comes from drinking water contaminated with radon gas.
Because of radon’s unpredictability, contamination occurs mainly in ground sources of drinking water. This water moves underground, often through rocks that contain natural uranium that releases radon into the water. This is why well-water has higher concentrations of radon than surface water (i.e. streams and rivers).
Radon in the Air is Simple to Detect
It is possible for one house to have high levels of radon while a neighboring house doesn’t. Measuring radon is the only way to determine how high the levels are in the house. Measurements are conducted using passive detectors that can be left in the home for, in some cases, up to several months. Radon levels can change from day-to-day, which is why leaving the detectors in the household for several months can give you a better estimate.
There are three types of passive detectors:
1. Etched tracks: They are usually placed in a household for 12 months.
2. Electret ion chambers: They come with various sensitivities—some can be used to measure radon levels for a few days and others for several months.
3. Charcoal detectors: They measure average radon levels over a period of a few days—they are typically used for screening measurements.
How to Reduce Radon Levels in Your Home
Radon levels in the home can be reduced in a number of ways:
1. Sealing floors and walls: Opt for products that preserve concrete against deterioration caused by groundwater.
2. Radon sump system: This will not only help moderate radon levels, but it will also help improve air quality in the home.
3. Ventilation: If needed, contact a contractor to inspect your home and see if there are any ventilation issues that can be improved.
Source for Today’s Article:
“Radon and Health,” World Health Organization web site; http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/env/Radon_Info_sheet.pdf, last accessed September 3, 2015.