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|What is Radon? : Columbia River edition : Wednesday, 21 February 2018 02:42 PDT : a service of The Public Press|
Upper Connecticut River Valley
northwestern and central Vermont
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What is Radon?
by Marshall Glickman
WHAT IS RADON?
Radon is a naturally produced radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown (radioactive decay) of uranium. You can't see it, taste it or smell it.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Based on newspaper headlines, you might think that radon was something that recently appeared along with all other toxic goodies that have resulted from our polluting the planet. To some extent that's true because radon may be found in soils contaminated with certain types of industrial wastes, such as byproducts from uranium or phosphate mining. But radon has existed long before the first nuclear plant or even the first spinning wheel. It's found in high concentrations in soils and rocks containing uranium, granite, shale, phosphate and pitchblende.
HOW DOES RADON AFFECT ME?
In open air, radon is diluted to such low concentratons that it's usually nothing to worry about. Inside, however, it can accumulate to dangerous levels -- depending on a buidling's construction and the concentration of radon in the underlying soil. It can also enter a house through the water system, particularly if you have a well near a radon source. In which case, every time you turn on the shower or a faucet you release radioactive material into the air (Maine has been documented to having particularly high concentrations of radon in the water supply).
YEAH, BUT DO I HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT IT?
You do if it's in your house and you don't prevent it from coming in (see below for details). The only known health effect associated with exposure to elevated levels of radon is lung cancer. This risk is especially high among smokers, but pertains to nonsmokers also (it's the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers). Estimates are that radon is responsible for 10,000 to 30,000 cancer deaths per year in the United States and that 8 million homes have unacceptably high radon levels. One family in Pennsylvania (the first place radon was "discovered") had a radon level so high the danger was the equivalent of smoking 280 packs of cigarettes a day.
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YEAH, BUT IS IT IN MY HOUSE?
The only way to know is to check. I looked at three different maps from the E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency) in three different books (reproduced below), but according one state official in our area who wishes to remain nameless, "you can throw away all the EPA maps. The only way to know if you have radon in your house is to check. Radon levels can vary from town to town, block to block and even house to house. If towns in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachussets aren't reporting many incidents of unacceptably high levels of radon, it's only because people aren't checking. In the more wealthy counties where people test they inevitably find radon. Even if your house isn't in an area that is gener" Jim Schniacke of the E.P.A.'S New England office, says state wide averages are approximately 20% of all houses have unacceptably high levels of radon.
Marshall Glickman is the founder and first publisher of the Green Living Journal.
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