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Science Wednesday:Five Letter Word for an Inert, Radioactive Gas

2012 January 4

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Jack Barnette

The other day, I was trying a rather difficult crossword puzzle when I stumbled across this clue – a five letter word for an inert, radioactive gas. Well, it’s got to be R-A-D-O-N. I know that one because radon and indoor air quality issues are a big part of my job at EPA. I wish the rest of the puzzle was that easy!

January is National Radon Action Month, so I’m blogging to increase awareness of radon’s dangers – and fortunately, here I can provide a lot more information than a crossword clue.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes from radioactive uranium in soil and rocks. Since radioactive materials break down and change over time, you might guess that uranium disintegrates. It does, into radium, and after more time, radium disintegrates into radon. Since radon is a gas, it moves around easily through soil and flows from the ground into the atmosphere or into homes, schools, and other buildings. Are you starting to get why I’m concerned with the radon levels in homes?

It’s crazy but true that our own homes can actually make it easier for radon to enter. Take where I live for example; in our cold Midwest climate we need to heat our homes. As we heat the air, the warmer air rises and creates higher pressure upstairs and lower pressure downstairs, or what I can best describe as a low-powered, but steady and insidious vacuum sucking on the soil underneath the house. Yeah, my house sucks! This is a major reason why we see elevated levels of radon in some buildings.

What’s even more insidious is that while you can’t see or smell radon it can still harm you.. Radon releases alpha particles as it continues to break down. In your lungs, alpha particles slam into tissue and cause damage. Breathing in too many alpha particles can cause serious health consequences, including cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the first cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

To protect the health of yourself and your family from radon, remember these tips: Test, Fix and Save a Life. The only way to know if you have elevated levels of radon in your home/school is to test. If you find high levels (4 picoCuries/L or more), fix your home – it’s easy, and might just save a life; check out EPA’s radon website. I wish the rest of the puzzle was as easy as testing for radon!

About the author: Jack Barnette is an environmental scientist with the Air and Radiation Division in EPA’s regional office in Chicago. Mr. Barnette has been with the U.S.EPA since 1984. Before joining EPA Barnette worked for the Illinois state environmental agency. Mr. Barnette works on a number of environmental and public health issues including indoor air quality, radiation protection, asthma education, and air monitoring.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Arman permalink
    January 4, 2012

    Radon ? Go Ahead…..!

    U.S. was complicated nation: The people, science, art, military, culture and environment. All aspects, could be problem by anyone at that time. The people have passions to debate anything, every time in every place. Saludos…! But in the other countries, the people doesn’t know how about radon and they don’t care it. Too clean and either to fabricate…..

  2. Pramod permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Sir, Jack Barnette
    I read the full post but I didn’t got my answer.

    Is RADON harmful for health?

    Regards
    Prestige

  3. Pramod permalink
    January 5, 2012

    Sir i read the full post. I have a question in my mind.

    Is RADON harmful for us?

    Regards
    Pramod

  4. John Matrin permalink
    January 5, 2012

    In my view there needs to be more attention paid to the impact of the decisions we are making today on our country tomorrow.

  5. John permalink
    January 5, 2012

    U.S. was complicated nation: The people, science, art, military, culture and environment.

  6. kiyohisa tanada permalink
    January 5, 2012

    “Fear I of the radon gas” knew it for the first time.
    The human does not know it,
    I think so that “an unconfirmed material” kills a human being.
    I want to know it more.

  7. Jeffrey Levy permalink*
    January 11, 2012

    Hi Pramod. Yes, radon is very harmful to people.

    According to http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html#overview on our website:
    “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.”

    A graph on that page shows that radon causes about 21,000 deaths each year in the U.S. from lung cancer.

  8. Grace permalink
    February 28, 2012

    Thanks for writing a simple and clear explanation of what radon is and how it can be a health risk.

  9. June 19, 2012

    Thanks for blogging about radon gas. I wish that more people would know about the affects of radon gas. It affectes more then 20,000 people in the USA every year and all you need to do to solve radon gas problem in you home is to put a radon mitigation system in!

  10. Raz permalink
    April 6, 2014

    Hi, I loved it!
    I have a crossword clues site so i guess thats why :)

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