Radiation Concerns Return

Radiation Concerns Return While Collections Grow and Glow

by Robert Kyle

Radiation, an almost forgotten remnant from the Cold War, has returned to public consciousness as a weapon of terrorism and in potential nuclear bomb development from other countries. Uranium, the key element in atomic bombs, discovered in the mineral pitchblende in 1789, was found to be radioactive in 1896. Its decay byproduct, radium, was discovered in France by Marie Curie in 1898. It is far more radioactive than uranium.

But the worse hazard, then and now, Johnson said, lurks under homes from toxic geological formations that release radon gas, a product of radium decay. This was big news in the 1980's, then faded away. Studies show about 55%, or 180 to 200 millirems, of our annual radiation exposure comes from natural radon gasses. Test kits are available at hardware stores for around $30.

Johnson mentions a common misconception. "If you don't have a basement, then you don't have to worry about radon. The only way you don't have to worry is if your house is sitting above the ground with ventilated airspace in between."

Johnson, who first began studying radon in the 1970's, said its link to cancer was confirmed in a study of uranium miners. "They had much higher rates of lung cancer, and it correlates with how much radon they were exposed to."

He said lung cancer in the U.S. causes 150,000 deaths per year. "The EPA, National Academy of Sciences, and others who have looked at the best data believe that radon contributes to twenty thousand lung cancer deaths among homeowners."

Johnson said a homeowner who smokes will complicate the diagnosis, as well as a person's mobility. "If you get cancer from radon it may not show up for twenty to forty years later." Thus, a person may have unknowingly lived at an unhealthful address many years earlier.

The EPA's Web site has a map of the U.S. showing regions of highest and lowest radon. Maine and Colorado, for instance, are high radon states. Louisiana has hardly any. The EPA also breaks its map down into individual counties.

The American public by 1960 had firmly developed its opinion of radiation based on negative reports without hearing both sides of the story. Lacking public educational or awareness programs to counter radioactivity's bad PR, the fears and phobias persisted, and still do today. The exception is environmentalists, engineers, and scientists like Ray Johnson, who are well schooled in the facts and myths of radiation.

The EPA supports this: "There is no firm basis for setting a 'safe' level of exposure above background [radiation]. Most regulatory and advisory boards around the world (including EPA) assume that any exposure carries some risk, and the risk increases as the exposure increases."

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