Radon, Indoor Pollution and Lung Cancer

Donald Steiny Blog, Health, Science, Science and Society Blog Leave a Comment

After reading an article posted by a friend that fabric softener was the primary source of indoor air pollution I couldn’t help but ask “what about Radon?” One of her friends asked: “what is Radon?” This article is a short one on Radon.

Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that product of radioactive decay. It is created by the radioactive decay of Radium. Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element. There are about 1.7 grams of Radium in a one-foot depth of a square mile of soil.  However, the amount of Radon is not evenly distributed, some places will have more, others less.  Here as a map of the US showing that areas have more or less Radon. A curie is the activity of one gram of Radium. A picocurie is one billionth of a curie.  You have picocuries of radiation in your body all the time from various natural radioactive substances you eat, drink,  and breath.

Map of US Radon Gas Concentrations

click image to enlarge

While many people seem to think that we are exposed to radiation by scary and high profile radiation leaks at nuclear reactors; the reality is that we are exposed to hundreds of times as much from the world around us. Life on Earth evolved with this exposure, so we have ways in our biology to deal with it to a degree. However, when the concentrations get too high our body can’t deal with it, and damage to our chromosomes can lead to cancer.

Since Radon is a gas, we breathe it, and it can collect in our lungs. The Radon that collects in our lungs can cause lung cancer.  The CDC estimates that there are 15,000 and 22,000 deaths a year from Radon (which is about 1/2 to 2/3s as many as from gunshots). The good news is that only 10% of those are in non-smokers.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to be safer.  You can test your home for Radon. If you find Radon there are ways of repairing your home, so less gets in. You can stop smoking and reduce you exposure to second-hand smoke and, you can make sure your home is well ventilated.  The CDC has a guide to reducing your risk.  The National Cancer Institute has a guide that explains Radon and tells how to mitigate its danger. The EPA also has a step-by-step guide to reducing the risk.

 

 

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