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Andrew Alden

Think About Radon

By October 6, 2012

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As winter approaches the United States and other northern hemisphere countries, it may be time to give a thought to radon. A geologic hazard tied to underground resources, radon is a radioactive gas that may permeate groundwater or natural gas from certain sources at low levels. Radon exposure would be higher during winter because radon can collect in tightly sealed spaces. So now may be a good time to measure the radon level in the living spaces where you spend the majority of your time. High levels, even levels that are tens of times background, are not an immediate hazard. But over the course of a lifetime they add a measurable (that is, statistically significant) amount to the very low risk of contracting lung cancer. If taking steps against radon exposure will give you peace of mind, the start of the shut-in season is a good time for that.

The explosion in natural gas production from tight shales, made possible by widespread use of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") methods, raises the possibility that radon levels in commercial gas may be rising. There is not enough data in hand to say whether that's true, much less how much of a problem that is, if any. Radon tends to be stripped from gas during processing, and radon disappears in a few weeks by natural radioactive decay. So judging the effect on radon exposure to workers and the public is not simple. But even the worst possibility is not an urgent threat, merely a research question to add to the mix in evaluating the new state of natural gas production.

Background: About Radon


October 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm
(1) adrian says:

Even if radon is in natural gas, it is burned in a semi-enclosed space in a furnace, water heater or fireplace and the hot gases then exit the flu. This should therefore give ZERO exposure to the inhabitants of the house. Andrew, this sounds more like a scare story than a fact based hazard.

October 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm
(2) Geology Guide says:

Adrian, there’s also the gas from cookstoves, especially in old apartments with ineffectively vented kitchens. But as you say, the whole thing sounds like scaremongering.

Prof. Joe, I am often reminded of this quote from Goethe: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action” (Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tštige Unwissenheit).

October 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm
(3) Prof. Joe says:

Awhile ago, here in upstate New York , I watched on the evening news an “anti-fracking” person who is against drilling for natural gas via the hydro-fracture method. His pronouncement on the screen was that the greatest risk would be from the drillers hauling the well cuttings away to the local landfills wherein we would then all die from exposure to intense radon gas volumes. Hot landfills, as it were.

Personally, I often suggest to my students that it is always a wise thing to engage one’s brain before opening one’s mouth, especially when you are being interviewed on TV.But, it often becomes very cold here in the winter in upstate NY, and brain freeze is a risk for some people.

October 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm
(4) Prof. Joe says:

Well, truth be told, radon is a safety issue here in the Piedmont region of the east coast. There is sufficient uranium deposits in the Applalachains and nearby that, as it decomposes, releases enough radon to cause trouble if you do not live in a home that is adequately ventilated. Or sealed with impermiable foundations. Or both.

The solution is simple: leave a small basement window open. Counting on the flue is not the answer. A partially open window is. Or if you are scared of thieves or racoons, install a vent. Side benefit: no “sick house” syndromes for you.

Most east coast folk, when they buy a new home, have it radon tested before they settle. Wise move!

October 15, 2012 at 7:38 am
(5) Deborah says:

Are there inventions like absorbers that can capture radon gas in the home and probably recycle the gas for use by industries.

October 15, 2012 at 4:07 pm
(6) Geology Guide says:

Radon has a half-life of only 3 days, so it isn’t feasible to collect it. And once it decays, the daughter products are single atoms that can’t realistically be filtered. The best way to treat a radon problem is ventilation.

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