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Radium, a solid, is one of forty radioactive elements (uranium, plutonium are the best-known). Discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, it glows in the dark and has a half-life of 1,600 years. Its less-toxic cousin radon (originally called radium emanation) is formed when radium decays and its half-life is only four days. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas found in minute quantities in the ground, air, and water everywhere. It is present in some houses and buildings, too, entering through construction joints, gaps, and cracks. Denser than the air we breathe, it collects – like fog – in low lying areas, most notably basements.

Miners have suffered from respiratory diseases since people went underground to dig for coal. 

For hundreds of years, miners died from respiratory diseases. Mines were ideal incubators for breathing problems because they were small, damp, poorly-ventilated spaces where men and boys worked shoulder to shoulder. Bits of the ores they were digging broke off and formed dust and particles that were suspended in the air that miners breathed all day long.

After the invention of the atomic bomb, demand for uranium increased.

People who studied such things found particularly high rates of lung cancer among uranium miners. From the start, radioactive radon gas was suspected as one of the causes. And because radon gas is everywhere, a few people tried to generalize the radon-lung cancer connection so it applied to everyone, not just miners.

This was science at its worst.

Miners’ situations were vastly different than other occupations. 

  • Miners spent long days underground; regular people didn’t. 
  • Miners were constantly exposed to unhealthily high levels of dust, particles, and toxic gases; regular people were not. 
  • Miners were exposed to high densities of radon gas; regular people weren’t.

The biggest factor contributing to so many miners contracting lung cancer was not their exposure to radon gas. The biggest factor was cigarettes. Ninety percent of miners who contracted lung cancer were cigarette smokers. 

That radon-nicotine link still exists.

Cigarette smoking is the cause of 90% of lung cancers. The other ten percent is divvied up between secondhand smoke, asbestos, and radon. Sources disagree on the number of deaths caused by radon. Estimates range from 7,000 to 30,000, but the rate remains constant: 90% of radon deaths are still among cigarette smokers.

Based on that single study of cigarette-smoking uranium-mining males, the majority viewpoint came to be this: if exposure to a lot of radiation is bad for them, exposure to a little is bad for everyone.

Generalizing from the specific, the Environmental Protection Agency launched an aggressive public relations campaign warning people of the dangers of radon in the home. They also ran advertisements encouraging homeowners to measure their radon levels. The idea was that early detection would find the colorless, odorless radon that could then be mitigated through proper remediation (they could have said ‘lessened by taking action,’ but bureaucracies do not eschew obfuscation). Their actions created a radon-related market.

The EPA drew its conclusion after focusing too narrowly on radon and not paying enough attention to the lung cancers caused by cigarette smoking.

This resulted in too much concern about the dangers of radon. The New Yorker summed up the situation by saying “The EPA created a huge radon-abatement industry dominated by contractors who charge large sums to ventilate basements.“ What was referred to as the EPA’s “terror campaign” has been roundly ridiculed by prominent figures in environmental engineering and public health.

The agency had set low standards for levels requiring remediation.

Their low bar resulted in a large number of homes being defined as needing corrective action, inflating the numbers and creating a widespread “radon problem.”

If your home tests 4 pCi/L or 0.016 WL, what should you do?

Shown cryptic measurements like these, most of us have no idea what they are or what they mean. The New York Times said “Americans are exposed to only about a third as much radon inside their homes as monitoring devices indicate, and have probably spent money needlessly to get rid of the gas.”

Critics say radon in the home is a great deal of fuss over something of very little importance. 

Let’s say you buy the tests and the detectors and pay to have someone make your radon go away. You still live in a house that has hundreds of everyday products emitting radioactive particles all day long: cell phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, wi-fi routers, microwave ovens, smoke detectors, radon detectors (oy), fluorescent lights, ceramics, granite countertops, kitty litter, and items that glow. Even some foods are radioactive: bananas, beer, and Brazil nuts, for example.

Most states have regulations requiring home sellers to disclose any known information about radon. 

Realtors advise prospective buyers to ask for a test showing the home is safe. This has spawned a four-headed radon industry where companies:

  • Sell radon detectors. Active radon detectors look like smoke detectors or thermostats, are powered by electricity, and mounted on a wall.
  • Sell DIY radon test kits. DIY test kits need to be sent to a lab for analysis.
  • Do your radon testing for you. Radon testing professionals who test homes for a fee each use their own devices and their own standards, none of which are transparent to consumers.
  • Solve your radon problem. Companies will seal your cracks and add a ventilation pipe from basement to roof for somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000.

A B2B realtor services company hired me to conduct an investigation with South Florida homeowners. 

The topic was radon, a colorless, odorless gas that occurs in minute quantities. Most homeowners didn’t know what radon was. Not a single one was concerned about it. One man I interviewed said the reason people in Florida don’t know about radon is that there are no basements, which is where radon collects in homes because it’s the lowest point in the house. He added that most people who have radon don’t worry about it, because the way to get rid of it is to open a window.

Where did radon rank among homeowners’ concerns?

Study subjects told us that even if they were to decide radon was something they should worry about (which they didn’t), there was no way it would rank higher on their list of environmental concerns than the larger issues of global warming, acid rain, pollution, extinction of species, drilling, pipelines, and other more pressing issues. The client company knew the new disclosure laws would increase awareness among Florida home buyers and sellers. And as awareness is the first step on the road to purchase, they had been considering adding radon detectors to their product and service lines. When they realized radon detectors were a solution in search of a problem, they abandoned the idea.

Did you know is there a radon tourist industry? 

I was surprised to find out that people pay to sit inside decommissioned gold, silver, and uranium mines. They inhale radon gas and drink radon water because they believe radon gas helps the human body heal itself. And they sure get exposed to a lot of it. Radiation levels in mines are more than 100 times higher than the EPA safety standard for houses.

The typical vacation at a radon health mine lasts a week or two.

The amount of time tourists can stay in the mines is determined by local regulations that are loosely enforced and easily gotten around. The mines appeal to simple folk because the healing is “natural,” it lacks commercialization, and is a relatively low cost treatment.

You can find headlines everywhere that claim radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

What isn’t mentioned is that it’s a very distant second place. Ninety percent of lung cancer deaths are caused by cigarette smoking. That leaves only ten percent to be divided among these four known causes of lung cancer: secondhand smoke, asbestos, genetic predisposition, and radon. Only two percent of those who died of lung cancer last year were non-smokers who died from exposure to too much radon.

No agreement exists about radon’s effect on humans who don’t work underground. Like any gas, it naturally disperses and drifts away into the atmosphere. Make up your own mind if it’s a problem, a cure, or much ado about nothing.

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