Tuesday, March 11, 2014


"You can't see radon. And you can't smell it or taste it. But it may be a problem in your home."
-The Environmental Protection Agency

There was a time in the 1990s when Radon Gas was the big scare.  It was seeping up from your basement and would give you cancer.  It was invisible, it had no scent, and it would kill your family!  People were warned they needed to get their homes tested for this gas, using either special expensive kits for sale by specific people, or by having a specialist to come in and test your home.
Special techniques could reduce the radon gas your home was subjected to, which were quite expensive.  To this day, homeowners often demand radon gas testing before they purchase a home, according to reports.
The EPA published a report, showing that homes with radon gas in them had a higher incident of lung cancer, claiming 21,000 people a year die from radon gas exposure.  The EPA website claims exceeds the number of annual deaths from drunk drivers and home fires, combined!
How bad is radon gas, is it a real threat?  Is your home slowly leaking death from the basement?
Well, let's take a look.  Radon gas is caused by the decay of uranium and thorium, which is present in the soil of a lot of places in very minute amounts.  This gas will tend to collect in water, and is released by exposure to air, particularly if the water is agitated.
Not all uranium is horrendously radioactive, nor is it super rare; there's only certain kinds of very radioactive uranium that is useful for nuclear power and weapons, and that kind is not often found in very high concentrations.  But the other sorts of uranium are less uncommon and in trace amounts.  As uranium breaks down, it releases radon gas, which filters through soil and eventually into the air.
Now, here we have a scary concept: uranium breaking down into gas and radiation is flooding my home?  Run for the hills!  This is enough to freak out most home owners, especially parents of babies.  This fear comes from a lack of scientific understanding combined with popular entertainment.  Once in a while radiation does something cool (Spider-Man) but most of the time it is shown as being the ultimate killer.  Need to fight off the aliens?  Nuke them.  Need to stop a meteor?  Nuke it.  Radiation and nukes are the pinnacle of death, there is nothing worse, or so popular media would tell us.
However, we're constantly bathed in radiation.  Your light bulb is radiating on you, mostly in the visible spectrum.  Radiation is simply energy that extends from a source.  Radiant heat, for example, is a form of radiation (mostly infrared), it is heat that radiates from a location.  Only some very few forms of radiation are actually lethal, although all forms can be dangerous in excessive amounts.  We cook food by radiating heat on it, but that doesn't make heat bad or terrifying.
We are constantly surrounded by radiation, which scientists call "background radiation."  It comes from everything.  You are radiating energy right now - not just infrared - and a Geiger counter could pick it up.  That's why when someone runs a Geiger counter in a movie or on TV it clicks and pops constantly; radiation is out there, all over, just not in highly concentrated amounts.
So the mere presence of radioactive materials doesn't mean we're all doomed.  So is radon gas a particularly bad form of radiation?  The EPA site presumes it is:
Radon is estimated to cause many thousands of deaths each year. That's because when you breathe air containing radon, you can get lung cancer. In fact, the Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States today. Only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths.
They ran some Ad Council ads for a while showing children playing in a middle class home flashing into skeletons. Its equal to having hundreds of chest x-rays a year!
According to the EPA, around the world the average concentration of radon in surface water is about 10 pCi per liter (pCi/l).
What is a pCi?  I had to look this one up.  This abbreviation pCi stands for picocurie, a very tiny measurement of radioactive intensity.  The word pico- is a prefix that means "one trillionth" so a picocurie is 1/1,000,000,000,000 of a curie.  How much is a curie and what does it mean?  More on that in a moment.
In the U.S., the average private well-water contains about 750 pCi/l. Levels exceeding 20,000 pCi/l are not uncommon.  The EPA recommends testing and venting of gas from your home if you find more than 4 pCi, warning that more will endanger your family.
Here's the problem with the EPA's claims; they are based on a study done in the 1950s in Colorado Uranium Mines. Stephen Moore writes at the Cato Institute:
Developed after World War II, when the concern with nuclear weapons propelled a search for uranium, the mines were “dog holes”—dusty, poorly ventilated, thick with smoke. The miners themselves smoked, unknowingly increasing the cancer risk. Data were unreliable: levels of exposure, in particular, were uncertain, given the dearth of measurements in the 1940s and 1950s and the questionable value of those that were made, often by the miners themselves.
These miners, most of whom were smokers, were also sucking in rock dust, nitrogen oxides, and various other chemicals used in the mining process, not the least of which was exhaust from machines.  This test showed high levels of lung cancer in the miners, which is about as surprising as Liberace's homosexuality.
Yet this is the only study that is relied on for the dangers of radon gas.  That's it, a 60 year old study of miners.  That's how the EPA came up with their numbers; not by doing autopsies or testing people in homes but by extrapolating from the mine data.  Science and Technology professor Leonard Cole writes in the New York Times:
Indeed, efforts by the New Jersey Department of Health to find a correlation between residential radon and lung cancer have been unavailing. In June, it issued the results of a study involving 750 people who lived in high-radon residences during the past 60 years. White males had slightly higher rates of lung cancer deaths compared to the general population, but in homes with the highest radon concentrations the incidence of lung cancer deaths was lower. Both tendencies were modest, and the department said it could draw no statistically valid conclusions.
If you look more closely you find even more problems with radon doom claims.  Cole goes on:
Ralph Lapp, a radiation physicist, notes that natural radon levels based on uranium findings are seven times greater in New Jersey than in Texas (5.4 picocuries compared to 0.8). Yet lung cancer deaths as a ratio of total cancer deaths in the two states are almost the same (26 percent in New Jersey, 29 percent in Texas).
Dr William K. Grosh in Pennsylvania took a closer look, wondering about the lung cancer claims.  He questioned colleagues, and none of them reported any high levels of lung cancer.  But Lancaster County where he lives is an area of particular concern in the EPA over radon gas in homes.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, 65 percent of homes tested in Lancaster County have been found with radon levels high enough that homeowners should take action to reduce them.

The average radon level in Lancaster County is more than three times higher than the level state and federal officials consider safe.

Yet, a state compilation of lung cancer deaths in Lancaster County spanning 2001-2005 - released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health - shows a lower rate of lung-cancer deaths here than nationwide.
You can't take just one study and conclude from it, because there are so many variables.  But there's so many of these instances, its not unreasonable to wonder how valid the fears really are.  The truth is, no study supporting the claims of dangers from radon gas in homes have ever been done.  There have been several studies, but none support the EPA's claims.
And there's good reason for that.  Your body right now has radioactive materials in it.  For example, it has trace amounts of the radioactive isotope potassium-40 which tests at more than 4 pCi.  You're not dying from the potassium-40 in your body, in fact you might die without that in you.
Radon gas is heavier than air, much heavier.  It can't even be vented out by fans, because it won't be sucked out with the air.  Even if it somehow seeps out of your pipes,  it will fall to the floor and pool there; and by pool I mean "lie in unbelievably tiny amounts you can measure only with immensely sensitive specialized equipment."
And since radon gas has a very, very short half life, and it turns into itsy particles of lead within a few weeks, but so little that its not dangerous to your family or pets.  Given that the testing kits cost 10-30 dollars and the venting costs 1,000-2,000 dollars this seems like an increasingly poor investment.
But get this: none of the home kits or professional testing actually measures radon levels
Each of the devices used by home inspectors and “radon consultants” measures some particular aspect associated with radon and then, using various assumptions and mathematical machinations, a “radon equivalent” number is generated. The protocols were not designed to be used to estimate annual human exposures to radon, and cannot, with validity or confidence produce radon exposure estimates.

The number reported during a short term test has a very low probability of actually representing the annual radon concentration in the home, and has virtually no utility in estimating the actual human exposure to radon or its SLRDs. Long term testing has a lower sampling error, but depending on the method, similarly cannot be used to estimate human exposures.
In other words, its expensive, doesn't help, and the testing doesn't even tell you anything, and there's no evidence that radon gas is harmful to human beings except in levels your house will never, ever produce.  To put it another way, if you had enough radon gas being produced in your home to be dangerous, you'd be sitting on a uranium mine and have greater concerns with radiation than radon gas.
Remember when I wrote "more on this in a moment" above?  Well here are some things to compare 4 pCi of radon intensity to.  Home Consumer products have 200 times the pCi emitting from them when functioning.  Your blender is killing your children!!!  When you go to the hospital and get a thyroid test, you're exposed to 200,000 times as much radiation.  Suddenly that 750 pCi in well water seems kind of meaningless, doesn't it?
So why does the EPA stick to this line, why haven't they backed off the radon stuff?  They pulled that ghastly PSA after complaints but the website is still pushing the same line.  Well, Harvard Professor of Medicine Graham Colditz has a theory.
A great deal more than radon is at stake here. If the linear no-threshold theory fails for radon, it must surely fail for all other types of radiation, and very probably also for chemical carcinogens.
The EPA claims that radon gas fears are one of the "best documented” carcinogens, that brings into question a huge host of other alleged concerns that the EPA warns us about, regulates us over, and requires us to deal with.  And well, that's a pandora's box they don't care to open, so the fears remain.  Or, as Governor LePetomaine put it, "We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs!"
And there's good money in selling Radon Detection Kits and in businesses that check for radon gas., which is what made me skeptical in the 90s when I first heard about this stuff.  No, no you have this colorless, indetectable gas you can't smell or taste, its all over your house and is killing your family.  But for a low, one-time fee I can come to your home with my light meter Radon Gas Detector and save you all!
Yeah.  And you have a bridge to sell, too?
*Hat tip to Doug Ross for some data and the idea for this post.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

1 comment:

halojones-fan said...

The issue is that back in the day, people were so terrified of nuclear plants getting radiation all over everything that they forced all plant workers to go through radiation detectors every day. Some of the workers would trip the detectors, and it turned out that their homes had Radon gas. So the whole Radon thing is a result of antinuclear paranoia.


Note that you're only required to do a test if you sell the property--if you just *live* there then you can breathe horrible cancerous poison as much as you like. Note also that you're not allowed to do multiple tests and get an average--if you do one test and it's above the level, then that's it, you're a horrible poisonmonger and you ABSOLUTELY MUST install a vent fan before you can do anything with the property.