What is radon gas and is it something you need to worry about?
If you have bought or sold a house recently you probably noted something called a radon inspection. You may have even read some scary stories about people dying from radon-induced lung cancer.
The short answer is that yes, you should worry, but not too much, and radon is a natural element that you have been breathing for years and it has not hurt you yet (I hope).
What is radon gas? It is radioactive.
Radon forms from the decay of uranium. This doesn’t have to be the nasty kind of uranium that goes boom and destroys the world as we know it. Believe it or not, there is uranium in the ground beneath your feet. Not much, but a little, and as it decays it emits a little bit of radon gas. This gas also decays and as it does so it emits radiation.
The decay chain looks like this: Uranium decays to radium which decays to radon, which decays into polonium and lead. The half-life of radon is relatively short-lived, about 3.8 days, but the earth contains a lot of uranium and radium, which are constantly decaying, so the level of radon stays roughly constant.
Not only does the decaying radon emit radiation, but it transforms the radon gas into a solid, which can then remain in the lungs a long time, and this dust particle, be it polonium or lead, is itself radioactive and emitting radiation.
What is radon gas? It is an element and a gas.
Radon is odorless, and colorless, so most people assume that they don’t have a problem, but this only makes it difficult to detect. It does not affect how dangerous it is.
Radon is an atom, of the type known as a noble gas, which means that it is extremely stable, chemically. That means that radon is unlikely to react with other atoms. It is this stability that allows the gas to seep through the overlying rock and make it to our atmosphere.
Since it is completely natural mankind has been breathing it in since we first walked on this earth. That sounds like it should be safe, but radon is slightly radioactive, which means, when it is in your lungs it is possible that some radiation can cause one or many of our cells to mutate, and this brings the possibility of cancer.
What is radon gas? It is a public health issue. Luckily we can measure radon levels and control them.
If you are breathing air out in the open you will breathe in radonn, but the amount of radon is miniscule and unlikely to hurt you. It is when the radon is allowed to build up in a confined space that you are in danger.
The EPA and other health agencies have spent a lot of time studying radon gas and its health effects. They say that about 21,000 deaths occur in the United States every year because of lung cancer and similar health problems caused by radon gas.
Since the danger increases as the amount of radon in the air increases, they have come up with a threshold level of radon. Radon below this threshold level will not significantly increase your risk of cancer. Above this level you need to take action to reduce the amount radon in the air.
That magic threshold level is 4 pCi/L. pCi/L is picocuries per liter, which is just a measure of the radiation in the air coming from radon. It means that roughly 8 to 9 atoms of radon are decaying every minute in every liter of air.
Compare this to the normal, background levels of radon outdoors. It varies by area, but averages about 1.3 pCi/L.
So what happens if your indoor radon level is at 4.1? Are you in serious trouble, but okay if it is at 3.9?
The answer is complicated. 4 is a little bit arbitrary. The World Health Organization says 2.7 is a better threshold to use. On the other hand there is research from Finland that suggests that even at higher levels radon is not likely to cause health problems.
Part of the uncertainty regarding the risk of household radon is that most of the studies on its effect were gathered from studies of miners in Uranium mines. The mortality and health effects were extrapolated down to the much lower concentrations found in houses. However, the Finnish study looked at actual households and was not able to show that higher radon levels actually resulted in a greater risk of cancer.
There is one little oddity to the radon risk that might be of interest to you. If you are a smoker you are 25 times more likely to end-up with radon-induced cancer than if you are not. The theory goes that the radon molecules tend to become attached to the smoke molecules, so that smokers actually breathe in more radon than non-smokers.
However, even with the higher concentrations of radon in your lungs you are more likely to get cancer from the smoking itself than from the radon. While reducing the radon in your house is a good thing, throwing away your cigarettes is a better thing.
Whatever the actual dangers it is accurate to say that someone who is breathing in air with a radon level of 8 is getting twice as much radon-induced radiation as someone breathing in air with a radon level of 4.
Now my house had radon levels measured at 14 to 18, and I have taken action to reduce that level, but less than 30 miles away there were houses with radon levels over 400. People in those houses definitely had an increased risk of getting lung cancer.
The reason why their radon levels were so much higher than mine has to do with the geology of the ground underneath their homes. There are much higher levels of uranium within the rock formations in their area.
Luckily the geology of your area does not have to determine the radon in your house. There are ways to build a house that keep the radon out, and there are ways to fix houses that currently have radon problems.
Since there is at least some question regarding the actual dangers is it worth it to invest in testing and radon remediation? At least for now the answer is yes, because lenders and government agencies will sometimes require that you test for radon and fix any problems. Thus, being able to show that your house has safe radon levels can increase its value, or at least make it sellable.
So, in summary, here are some quick facts that answer the question “What is radon gas”?
- A Noble element with the atomic symbol Rn
- A natural product of the decay of Uranium
- A radioactive gas that can emit radiation while in your lungs, potentially causing cancer
- Something you have been living with all of your life
- A danger that can be reduced considerably, but not entirely eliminated
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