Rarely Considered Health Effects of Radon

Radon – It may be more of a health issue than previously thought.

As we’ve known since about 1986, radon is a residential health issue. In 1986, a worker at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was setting off the radiation detectors on his way into work.  It was determined that the source of his radiation was coming from the radon in his house, not from the nuclear power plant. The federal government bought his house and it has been used as a residential radon lab and study center since. Subsequent to that it was determined that radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer for non smokers. At some training in March 2021, the instructor pointed out that being in an environment with a radon level of 1pCi/L for 24 hours is equivalent to smoking 2 packs a day.

First, let’s review what is radon and why is it a cause of cancer?  First, radon is a naturally occurring gas, in fact an element. If you remember from High School Chemistry, the Periodic Table of the Elements, radon is an element.  Oxygen, gold, silver, iron are elements as well. However, radon is a radioactive gas. Its origins begin with Uranium 238 in the bedrock in the soil.  A radioactive element spontaneously releases protons, neutrons or electrons. As they do they change their state. Eventually, due to many spontaneous changes and over many, many years, the Uranium 238 eventually becomes radium, another natural element and from Uranium to radium they’ve all been solids stuck in the bedrock.  When radium decays (aka spontaneously changes) it becomes radon which is a gas. For the next 3.8 days, the radon gas rises from the soil and can enter homes or any other building (Schools, businesses, etc.) that have contact with the soil. When radon decays, it A) Releases alpha radiation and B) Turns back into a solid so it basically stops moving. It’s the radiation that is harmful. Radiation in large doses can cause cancer. Any radiation (From the Sun for example causing skin cancer) is dangerous. When you get an X-Ray, for example, there’s some exposure to radiation but since most of us don’t get X-Rays on a regular basis, it’s not harmful. It’s the exposure to radiation that results in the Dental Technician to place the lead lined apron over you so the exposure to the radiation is focused on the area it’s needed.

Second, when radon enters a home it can enter homes with basement, concrete slabs and crawl spaces. While I have not personally done a test resulting in a high radon reading in a house with a crawl space, I have had high radon readings in homes with basements, of course, and with slabs (No basements).

Third, when we inhale radon gas (Red sphere in the diagram below), if it’s not expelled in the next breath, it’s possible that it will go through its radioactive decay while the radon is in our lungs.  Now, just like the sun exposure to our skin, inside our lungs the radon elements are releasing atomic levels of energy in the form of alpha radiation. When it does, it spontaneously changes to lead (Pb), a solid (All following elements are also solids) with a radioactive half life of 26.8 minutes then bam! Another punch of energy but this time it’s beta radiation. Beta radiation is more powerful than alpha radiation and the Pb atom changes to an element called Bismuth (Bi).  In 20 minutes, the Bi spontaneously changes and becomes a nasty element called Polonium (Po). From the site, Polonium-210: Effects, symptoms, and diagnosis (medicalnewstoday.com) there are 25 variations of Po.  Also noted at this site, “Polonium-210 is the deadly poison that was used to kill the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006. He died of radiation sickness.”

In the radon radio-active-decay process, we see three varieties of Po (Green spheres in the illustration below). Po-218 initially, then Po-214 and eventually Po-210.

All of these characteristics are why the potential to get cancer from radon exists!

That information alone should motivate you to conduct annual radon tests!  But more information was learned at some 2022 training the I attended for my current NJ DEP Radon Measurement Technician licensing. That new information is that there are studies that point to not only lung cancer from radon by childhood leukemia.  Here are a couple of links below that shed some light on that issue.

Environmental radon exposure and childhood leukemia – PubMed (nih.gov)

From the above link, “Among 12 ecological studies, 11 reported a positive association between radon levels and elevated frequency of childhood leukemia, with 8 being significant. In conjunction with ecological studies, several case-control studies on indoor radon exposure and childhood leukemia were examined, and most investigations indicated a weak association with only a few showing significance.”

Childhood leukaemia in areas with different radon levels: a spatial and temporal analysis using GIS | Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (bmj.com)

For the health and safety of your family, what should you do?

  • Test for radon annually. Conducting short term tests are what’s used for real estate transactions. By radon testing protocols, a real estate, short term test is at a minimum of 48 hours long and up to 6 days. Even if you’ve been in your home for years, test annually.
  • Know your “Radon potential”. The NJ DEP classifies every Borough, Township and City in the state as either, “High Radon Potential”, “Moderate Radon Potential” or “Low Radon Potential”. The classification has to do with the percentage of homes tested vs the probability of having a radon test above 4.0pCI/L. 4.0 is the recognized, “Action Level”. In a real estate transaction, a radon level of 4.0 or higher requires mitigation. 3.9 or below and no further action is required for the sale of the home.

Anecdotally, I live in a NJ DEP classified, “High radon potential” area.  When we moved in radon tests were not common. When I became a home inspector and licensed for radon, I became aware and tested my home. I’ve conducted about 6 tests in my home over the past 9 years and they’ve always come back at around 2.5pCi/l in the basement. We don’t live in the basement but we do exercise there.  I recently purchased a radon detector from a company called Air Things – https://www.airthings.com/

After activating it this past summer, after a week or 10 days of calibration, it provided an reading of that same, 2.3 – 2.7pCI/L range.  About 6 weeks prior to writing this piece, the weather was cool enough to turn off the AC and open windows. After about 10 days of open windows on the floor above the basement, the radon levels in the basement exceeded 4.0pCi/L ! I was shocked but remembered from training over the years that opening windows on the floors above the basement can increase radon levels. Air passing through the house on the 1st level above the basement can cause negative pressure inside the basement. As the pressure inside the basement naturally wants to equalize, it has the potential to draw radon in from the soil and I believe that’s what happened in my home. In addition to not, “airing out” the house, I cracked a few basement windows open (Which I had not previously done).  Our basement is also a walk out so I leave the basement door to the outside open more now than I did before and the radon levels are in the 1.2 – 1.6pCi/L range pretty reliably.

Conclusions:

  • Take radon seriously. For all people, young and old. Help prevent lung cancer and potentially leukemia.
  • Either test for radon regularly or purchase an active radon monitor like the products sold by Air Things.

Final notes: The NJ DEP is implementing new radon measurement protocols effective December 3, 2022. Unfortunately, the new protocols will drive the price of radon testing up.  Currently, a 1200 square foot split level house would require 1 test device in the, “Lowest livable level” (aka basement). The new protocols will require at least four (4) tests in the same house.  If you’d like to have us conduct a radon test for you, prior to December 1, 2022, prices start at $100 (There are other factors that determine the number of tests now but 1 can is often allowable).  After December 1, the prices will definitely be increasing.

Frank J. Delle Donne is a NJ DEP Licensed Radon Measurement Technician. First licensed for radon testing in December 2013. He is co-owner of Regal Home Inspections, LLC along with his son, Brian.

Frank is licensed to do NJ home inspections, NJ DEP Core and 7B termite (Wood destroying insect) inspections and radon testing. Brian is licensed to do NJ home inspections, radon testing and lead paint testing.