A Guide to Radon

A Guide to Radon
What is Radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring noble gas (so called because they are mostly inert and do not interact with other elements) first discovered in 1900. If you look on the periodic table you’ll find it all the way on the bottom right listed as Rn.

The important thing to know about radon is that is radioactive, which means that it spontaneously emits energy in the form of sub-atomic particles (think of protons, electrons, and all the other tiny things you learned about in high school chemistry class). This process, known as radioactive decay, is actually a sequence of atoms breaking down into one element after another. Radon is formed during the decay of uranium and has a half-life of only a few days, meaning it quickly breaks down into the next element in the decay chain (polonium).

Is it dangerous?

Because radon is radioactive it presents a serious health risk. The high-energy particles given off during radioactive decay can kill cells (which is the reason we use radiation to get rid of tumor cells) and can also cause cancer by damaging DNA. The most common form of radon exposure results when the gas sticks to dust particles and is inhaled into the lungs. Reports of miners dying from lung conditions now believed to be radon-induced lung cancer date back as far as the 16th century, and the carcinogenic effects of radon were confirmed during studies of uranium mining operations in the 19th century. Today, the EPA estimates that radon is responsible for around 21,000 deaths from lung cancer every year and is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer behind smoking.

Radon can also sometimes be found in the water supply, but ingestion poses a much lower risk of cancer. Instead, most of the risk that comes from water-borne radon comes as the result of radon being released into the air from running water (like in the shower or laundry).

Am I being exposed to radon?

Radon makes up around 50% of the background radiation most of us are exposed to in our day-to-day lives (the rest comes from the natural sources like the sun and from man-made sources like medical scans). Rocks like granite, shale, and limestone contain uranium undergoing radioactive decay and will release radon into the air, although most airborne radon comes from soil that is rich in uranium. Because radon doesn’t stick around for long its presence is pretty variable, but the average concentration indoors is around 100 Bq/m3and 10-20 Bq/m3 outside (for comparison, the EPA sets an acceptable indoor dose at 400 Bq/mwhile a uranium mine can reach concentrations up to 1,000 times that).

Radon can also be found in some natural waters. In fact, before its effects were well-understood, people used to visit radon-rich hot springs in the hopes that the radiation would be healing and energizing (you can still visit some of these places today, actually). Water drawn from underground sources can have high radon levels, but the gas quickly disappears from water sources like reservoirs that are open to the air.

What can I do to minimize my risk?
Airpura P600 Air Purifier

Airpura P600 Air Purifier

Unless you’re mining uranium you’re unlikely to be exposed to extremely hazardous levels of radon, but it is still possible to come into daily contact with concentrations high enough to be dangerous. This is most likely to happen indoors where the gas is trapped and high concentrations can build up. Walls, floors, and countertops made of granite and other kinds of stone can emit high levels of radon, and the gas can also be introduced into basements of buildings built on uranium-rich soil. Testing kits for air are available and easy to use: all you have to do is set out the absorptive canister for 2-3 days then mail it back for testing. If you find you have high levels of radon in your home it’s easy to make yourself safe by increasing ventilation and investing in an air purifier with activated charcoal.

Local water authorities will most likely test for radon in your water supply, but if you get your water from a private well you can contact the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline (1-800-426-4791) for information on how to get your water tested. And no matter where you get your water, a filtration system with activated charcoal can remove radon from your home water supply.

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