Radon in our Homes

Home - VideosRadon in our Homes: The Science Behind the Danger

Aaron Goodarzi - Listen, and I will tell you a tale. Listen, and I will tell you a tale of apples, and cellars, and Canadians, and of space travel. And above all, I will tell you a story about our DNA. I will tell you the story, the invisible story, of radon. Now, it is said that light in the absence of eyes illuminates nothing. That is a quote spoken by scientist Trevor Goodchild in the science fiction series Æon Flux by Peter Chung. Essentially, it means that if we are not looking at it, an object, no matter how illuminated, is essentially invisible.

 

Radon is just such an object. It is something that we have known about for more than a century. It is something that for more than two generations we have known as a killer. But it is because we have not been looking at it, it has been essentially invisible to the public eye. In this case, light has illuminated nothing.

 

Radon is not only figuratively invisible, it is literally invisible, tasteless, odorless, and colorless, and what is dangerous about it is as it arises from the breakdown of radium minerals in the soils all throughout this part of the world, it's radioactive. It emits a type of radiation called alpha particle radiation, which is very similar to what we encounter up in space.

 

Alpha particles, although they do not move very far, move incredibly quickly, indeed half the speed of light, with sufficient energy to put a dent in a piece of bullet-proof plastic. Imagine what that does inside your bodies. Even more dangerous, radon precipitates. As it emits alpha particle radiation, it transforms, it becomes solids called radon daughters of a variety of different elements that will fall out inside your lungs. Some of those, such as radioactive Pb 210 will continue to emit radiation inside your bodies for decades after the initial exposure.

 

All of us are born with nice, intact DNA, half of which is from mom and half of which is from dad. As alpha particles wreak havoc inside our bodies, what happens is that it reacts with the very water that comprises our cells, weaponizing that, turning it into highly reactive oxygen species that will go ahead and react, breaking apart out DNA, our very thing that makes us who we are, generating mutations that will drive cancer.

 

This is much more dangerous than the common X-ray, another type of radiation. As X-rays move through us, they do so quite quickly, depositing widely spaced energy that creates damage, your bodies, and my body, heal very easily. However, alpha particles from radon, they move through us with an incredible amount of energy, depositing such a wave of genetic destruction, our bodies simply cannot heal that accurately, transforming our nice normal cells into these genetic monsters which drive cancer inside us.

 

Now, it is perhaps not surprising, given what I just told you, that radon is classified by authorities as a category 1 cancer-causing agent, a carcinogen. In the same broad category meaning we absolutely know is a cause of human cancer alongside asbestos, tobacco, and even mustard gas. Even less surprisingly, given the fact that Canadians have unwittingly built all of our cities across some of the most radon-generating geologies on Earth, 10 to 40 thousand of us succumb to radon-induced lung cancer each decade. Those succumbing to cancer are likely those, the 1 in 30 amongst us who are radiation sensitive but would never ever know it until you are exposed to radiation.

 

Radon is actually a Canadian discovery. In 1904, Ernest Rutherford wrote a book. This book, in fact, called Radio-activity, in which he described radon as the radium emanation for a radioactive source he observed emitting from solid radium minerals in his lab. And in that book, he actually described our radon problem. 1904, he writes:

 

"Thus, there could be little doubt that their abnormal activity observed in caves and cellars is due to a radioactive emanation present in the Earth that gradually diffuses to the surface and collects in places where the air is non disturbed."

 

1904, Ernest Rutherford at McGill shined the light on radon. But, other than a select few, nobody was looking. The light in this case illuminated nothing.

 

We now know that Rutherford was absolutely right. Radon comes out of the ground, say in your front lawn, in a field, dilutes into almost nothing instantaneously. But in human-made structures, your homes, your schools, your workplaces, it accumulates, and it accumulates to quite dramatic levels sometimes, very hazardous concentrations. So, while it is a natural thing, what is unnatural is the way our buildings concentrate it to very hazardous levels. Now, you can measure this by using a few tricks. One is such thing as a cloud chamber. If you go out into the lobby, you will see a demonstration of a cloud chamber. Basically, a little fish tank of super cooled alcohol vapor that, as those alpha particles move through, they disturb and make a little cloud trail. This is a very low containing radon environment. This, however, is a very high radon containing environment. Every single one of those little emissions of an alpha particle. You measure the number of those per second, that is how we measure radon: the Becquerel.

 

Of course, in houses we have a much more accurate way of doing this. We have these little hockey pucks, and in these little hockey pucks is a little square of bullet-proof CR39 plastic. And as I said before, those alpha particles bulleting it at half the speed of light, they dent that plastic. High powered microscopes can count the dots. That tells us how much radon is in there.

 

The amount of radon-emitting particles at a given time, that's great, we need to know that. But what is more impactful for human health is the amount absorbed. Now, to put this into context, I would like you all to envision yourself as sitting under an apple tree. In this case, the radon is the tree. The alpha particles are the apples. And the number that hit you and hurt you, that's the absorbed dose. So, the overall number of apples that fall from the tree, that's the Becquerels, that's those alpha emissions every second. But the number that actually hit you, that's the Sievert, that's the absorbed dose that has a measurable effect on human health.

 

Now to put that into context, let's envision one dental X-ray. 0.01 of a mSv. Very low dose of radiation. Get your dental X-ray. Your teeth will thank you. This is a chest X-ray. Ten of those. Ten dental X-rays is roughly the equivalent to a chest X-ray. You break a rib, get one of those. Again, your body will thank you. This is a CT scan. Much higher dose of radiation. If you have a medical need and your physician prescribes you a CT scan, for example you may have a traumatic brain injury, get one. If you have the sniffles, you do not get a CT scan, it is a very high dose of radiation. We take a CT-scan worth of radiation, multiple it by this much. That's how much was coming out of the meltdown at Fukushima back in March of 2011. A substantial dose of radiation that significantly increases the lifetime risk of cancer. Now, please keep these in mind, as I am going to come back to radon in a second and equate that to this.


But before I do that, I'm going to tell you about how we know about radon in homes. So, like many scientific discoveries, it was an accident. This is Stanly. And just before Christmas in 1984, Stanly started his new job at the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. And what was really weird one morning when he went into work is he went in, and all the radiation alarms went off, the bells, sirens, you name it. Very strange. But, not when any of his colleagues walked in. Even weirder, when he went home, nothing happened. Well, even more strange, there was no nuclear material in the plant yet, they hadn't even turned on the reactors. It was still under construction. Turns out, Stanly's house was an astonishing 99,900 Becquerels worth of radiation. The equivalent of 10 million dental X-rays worth of radiation. As he walked into work, there were so many radon daughters pouring off his cloths that those nuclear disaster alarms triggered and went off. Thus, the discovery was made between radon and domestic exposure in our houses, our schools, our workplaces.

 

The health authorities kicked into gear. The US EPA, Health Canada. They started to issue some warnings, but by and large, nobody was looking. The light illuminated nothing. And that is where our story could have ended. That's where, in fact, for many decades it remained. However, something started to change only a few years ago. At least in this part of the world. A few scientists got together and, knowing that radon is the number 1 way that we are exposed to radiation in our lifetime, decided to test their houses. And, a few more people got interested in that. And a few more eyes opened to Ernest Rutherford's discovery. And a few more people got in. And the community got involved: "I want to test my house. No, I want to test my house", and more and more, until so many people were looking that the light illuminated everything, and eyes were opened. We now know that 1 in 8 Alberta houses exceeds Health Canada's maximum acceptable radon limit of 200 Bq/m3. 1 in 2 exceed where we start to see a statistically significant increase in the lifetime risk of lung cancer. Even more alarmingly. If we break down the houses by the year that they are built, although older properties from 1890 to the middle of last century, 1 in 13 of those had high radon, already alarming, now today that is almost triple: 1 in 5 new properties built in the 21st century exceed that maximum acceptable guideline. What are we doing wrong? This is something we have to figure out.

 

I am sure I have terrified you. And you are worried. And I am not apologizing, because lung cancer is a very scary thing. Very scary. And for this cause, radon, it is completely and utterly preventable. It is very easy to fix. And it is starting right now, because your eyes have illuminated to Ernest Rutherford's discovery back in the day.

 

This is fixable. You can test your house, I told you how to do that, very easy and straightforward. If your house comes back low, great. Knowledge is power. Rest easy. If you house comes back high, doesn't matter, it's fixable, we already have extremely efficacious technology to fix your house, then you celebrate, a couple of days work in the house, minor home renovation costs. Does it work? Yes, it does, we know, because we looked. Here are 100 houses in red with unacceptably high radon and those same houses in blue after mitigation, all perfectly fine. So, this is a story with a potentially very happy ending.

 

If I asked you if you could do something that could potentially save the lives of 40 thousand Canadian children over the next decade, would you do it? Would you use that knowledge? Because light in the presence of eyes illuminates everything. Using science helps. We can make change. We can tell our young people, we can tell our legislators, our lawmakers, and we can pass laws like what was just passed before Christmas, the first Canadian radon awareness and testing act right here in Alberta. We now protect our childcare facilities. But wait. "I was promised space travel" you say. And you were. And that is perhaps the coolest part. Because as I said, radon is very similar to the type of radiation we see up there in space. And by understanding the biology of alpha particles, who is sensitive, who is not sensitive, how we can protect ourselves, so we will take humanity out there into the stars to explore the universe. And we will do that by evicting radon from our homes right here in Alberta. If you want to evict radon from you house, test for what it is. Please visit evictradon.ca and get a test. And you can also contribute your results anonymously to me, scientists, and we will take that forward and make a difference. Thank you very much.