What is Radon?
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas which forms from the decay of radioactive elements like Uranium found in varying amounts in all rocks, soil, concrete and bricks. Radon is an unstable nucleotide that disintegrates through short-lived decay products of radon, called radon daughters or radon progeny. It emits highly ionizing alpha-radiation decay products suspending into the air which we breathe, hence is most hazardous by inhalation. Radon gas breaks into tiny radioactive elements that can lodge itself in the inner lining of the lungs, where they give off radiation. Level of Radon cannot be detected without special types of equipment.
How people are exposed to Radon?
Our level of exposure to Radon depends upon the characteristics of the rock and soil in the area. The levels are generally lower outside and higher inside closed buildings and houses.
At homes and other Buildings:
95% of radon gas given off by soil or rock can enter buildings through cracks in floors or walls, construction joints, or gaps in the foundation around pipes, wires or pumps. The level is higher in basement or crawl spaces as they are closest to the source. Small amounts of Radon exposure is from the water supply into the air, where it is inhaled by us. 1% of this exposure is through bathing, showering and cleaning while swallowing water constitutes 0.1% of the total percentage.
Radon exposure can also happen through building materials if they are made from radon- containing substances. Almost any building material made from natural substances including concrete and wallboard may give off some level of radiation. The level of radiation is mostly low but in certain cases, it may contribute significantly. Some granite countertops may also expose people to different levels of radon gas. According to the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), it is very unlikely that a granite countertop in a house would increase the radiation level above the natural background level that comes from nearby soils and rocks. It also states that the average indoor radiation level is about 1.3 (PCi/L), and is problematic if it reaches 4.0 PCi/L or higher.
Radon gas occurs everywhere, but certain types of Geology- such as granite, volcanic soils, rocky and mountainous areas as well as aluminous slates are more likely to contain radon. Radon can also accumulate in dangerous concentration in caves and mines. High death rates from lung problems among miners were first noted 100 years ago. After the study of radon-exposed miners during the 1950s and 1960s, the link between radon exposure and lung cancer was confirmed.
Why is Radon harmful?
Radon breaks into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny such as polonium-214 and lead-214. Radon progeny can attach itself to dust and other particles and thus can be inhaled by us into our lungs. As radon and radon progeny breaks down it gives off radiation that may damage the DNA inside the body’s cell. According to International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms based on sufficient evidence that radon and its progeny can cause cancer and is thus classified as “Carcinogenic to Human.”
Effects of Radon on humans:
- Exposure for a long period of time can damage lung cells leading to lung cancer.
- It is the second biggest cause of Cancer after smoking.
- Lung cancer risk doubles when radon exposure is combined with smoking.
Symptoms of Radon exposure
Unlike some other gases, there is no symptom of radon poisoning right away. The effect of the exposure may show up after many years in the form of lung cancer. Lung cancer may start with:
- A nagging cough
- Shortness of breath
- Continuous and constant wheezing
- Coughing up blood
- Chest pain
- Losing weight
If you notice any of these symptoms, it is advised you seek immediate medical help and take tests for Lung Cancer. There are no routine medical tests for radon exposure and no amount of treatment can clear it from your body. Hence it is advised, you should use a radon detector at your homes to keep yourself and your family safe. After all, it is wisely said, ‘Prevention is better than Cure.’
How to detect?
Measurement is the only way to determine levels of radon in a house. Measurements are normally carried out using radon detectors which are left in the house, for a period of time i.e. days or months. It is important because radon levels vary from day to day and from season to season. So, we prefer measurements over several months than short term measurements for estimating annual average radon levels. Short-term kits are usually left in place for several days before being mailed for assessment. Whereas long-term kits, which may give a more accurate assessment of average radon levels over the course of a year, are usually left in place for at least 3 months.
Detectors can be purchased from testing companies but must be returned to them for assessment. To accurately reflect people’s true exposure to radon, detectors must be placed in areas where people spend most of their time, for example- halls, bedrooms, and kitchen.
Do-it-yourself radon detection kits can be ordered through the Amazon or bought in hardware or home supply stores. These kits are supposed to be placed in the home for a period of time- say for days or months and then mailed to a lab for analysis.
You can also hire a skilled professional from an organization to test radon levels in your home.
How can you reduce levels of Radon in your house?
- Improving the ventilation of the house
- Sealing floors and walls
- Increasing underfloor ventilation
- Installing a radon-sump system
These are however precautionary measures and does not ensure lower radiation exposure.
Radon fact file:
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the Surgeon General’s Office have estimated that as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths are caused each year by radon. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon-induced lung cancer costs the United States over $2 billion dollars per year in both direct and indirect health care costs. (Based on National Cancer Institute statistics of 14,400 annual radon lung cancer deaths – Oster, Colditz & Kelley, 1984)
- According to the US EPA, nearly 1 in 3 homes checked in seven states and on three Indian lands had screening levels over 4 PCi/L, the EPA’s recommended action level for radon exposure
- A family whose home has radon levels of 4 PCi/L is exposed to approximately 35 times as much radiation as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow if that family was standing next to the fence of a radioactive waste site. (25 mrem limit, 800 mrem exposure)
- An elementary school student that spends 8 hours per day and 180 days per year in a classroom with 4 PCi/L of radon will receive nearly 10 times as much radiation as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows at the edge of a nuclear power plant. (25 mrem limit, 200 mrem exposure)