Radon, the All-Season Threat to be Reckoned with
Updated: Mar 30
These are indeed trying times: with the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, millions have been forced to quarantine themselves at home, while businesses of various stripes have been forced shut indefinitely. The prevailing thing on people's minds is to survive - figuratively for some, literally for others - during what amounts to a crisis unprecedented in recent memory.
As our lives shift to spending even more time indoors (we already spend some 90% of our time indoors as it is), it is crucial not to forget about the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ), which consists of radon, volatile organic compounds, CO2, humidity, air pressure, temperature, and light. It is how healthy your IAQ is that plays a significant role not just in preventing illness and disease but also in improving cognitive performance.
Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing posts on each individual aspect of IAQ that highlight their importance to your health and cognitive abilities, especially now in these unparalleled times. Today, we begin with radon, the naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) that can have fatal effects if left unchecked.
What is radon?
Radon is an odorless, colorless, and invisible radioactive gas. Ubiquitous in air, water, and soil, radon is a decay product of uranium that seeps through cracks, fissures, and similar openings in home and building foundations. Essentially at levels innocuous to humans in the outdoor environment, radon can accumulate indoors to levels that pose a significant health risk: radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer - the most frequent and deadly type of cancer - in the world after smoking. The World Health Organization estimates that 3% to 14% of all lung-cancer cases in every country are a result of excessive, long-term radon exposure. Some 21,000 people in the United States alone die of radon-induced lung cancer every year, 2,900 of which have never smoked in their lives.
How radon is harmful
How is it that something that we cannot see, sense, nor feel lead to such unfortunate consequences? To put it simply, radon is unstable, which causes it to emit alpha radiation. This alpha radiation, when breathed into the lungs, wreaks havoc on the DNA. Think of this alpha radiation as a constant barrage of missiles on your DNA. This can cause the replication of DNA to go haywire, producing cell mutations which in turn drive lung cancer.
Children are the most susceptible to the nocuous effects of radon. First, since children are growing, this means that their cells are dividing and that their DNA is replicating. It is this active replication of DNA that makes children much more vulnerable to the damage that radon causes, as described above. Second, given that children are that much smaller than adults, the rate of radon exposure is that much greater simply by mass. Third, children breathe faster, some two to three times faster than adults, to get the same amount of oxygen, thus inhaling much more radon at the same time. Fourth, children simply have that much more life left, making childhood exposure more likely to lead to lung cancer later in life. Together, these facts make children "radiation sensitive". Adults, however, are not immune to the problem either: It has been established that 1 in 30 adults are "radiation sensitive".
Testing for radon
There are several ways to test. For testing a home or building (ex. office building), it is highly recommended to use a digital continuous radon monitor, such as the Airthings Wave Plus. There are also long-term passive monitors, similar in appearance to ice-hockey pucks, that after a three-month period (the expert-recommended testing period) are sent to a specialized laboratory for data processing. While long-term passive monitors provide accurate results and are a bit more affordable than their digital counterparts, they are for one-off use only, so you have to buy them again each time if you want to do testing down the road; digital continuous monitors provide 24/7 readings and over many years.
Short-term tests (approx. 2-3 days) are available; however, their usage should be reserved for very specific cases, such as to verify general exposure reduction after installing a radon mitigation system. Otherwise, short-term testing, according to the University of Calgary, is faulty 99% of the time. In other words, serious decisions cannot be taken based on results from short-term testing alone.
There is, however, one exception. Companies like DURRIDGE, a world-renowned producer of radon capture and analytics technology, offer professional-grade equipment based on leading technology that allows to detect radon levels in air, water, and soil with immense accuracy (just +/- 5% margin of error) in no time. DURRIDGE equipment. however, is targeted towards industrial and R&D applications. CareTac does offer emergency testing using the DURRIDGE RAD7 for clients who wish not to wait for highly accurate results.
The good news is that dangerous exposure to radon is a purely man-made phenomenon that can easily be fixed. If it turns out that a radon test reveals your home or building to have elevated concentrations of radon, then there are a number of mitigation measures that can drastically reduce your exposure, such as installing a radon mitigation system that actively ventilates radon from the source into the outdoors. The author of this blog post used an Airthings Wave over a three-month period to record average in-air exposure levels of 150-170 Bq/m3 (one becquerel is equal to one radioactive decay per second); CareTac recommends average in-air exposure of no more than 45 Bq/m3. Two days after installing a radon mitigation system consisting of one ventilation unit, my radon-gas levels have stayed consistently at 5-15 Bq/m3.
CareTac is the only company in South Africa to offer radon mitigation system design and installation services.
Radon: a problem year-round
So, as quarantines around the world continue or are just starting, it is important to not lose track of the big picture. There are risks out there that, in the long run and regardless of season, can deserve our attention as well, and radon is one of those risks. Given that the danger radon poses is both potentially fatal and entirely preventable, it is imperative to take the simple steps to test your home and, if needed, take the necessary mitigation measures. It could save not only your life, but those of your loved ones.