Risks of Radon

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Gregory Rollings

What if I told you radiation is everywhere and that we are constantly exposed to it on a day to day basis?  According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the average annual radiation dose per person in the U.S. is 620 millirem (mR).  To give a comparison, a Computed Tomography (CT) chest Scan is about 700 millirem of exposure and a chest X-ray is at 10 millirem.  However, keep in mind that most of our annual dose comes from space (cosmic radiation), terrestrial, medical treatments, and radon.  Radon itself makes up for approximately 37 percent of our total annual dose and is one of the biggest concerns for homeowners.  So what is radon and why is it dangerous?

Radon is a naturally occurring, odorless, colorless, and tasteless radioactive gas found in the soil.  The radon levels in a particular area vary based on location, elevation, and soil composition.  Radon is a product of natural uranium, which is found deep in the earth’s crust.  When uranium decays it produces radon in the form of a gas.  This gas seeps upward toward the surface and dissipates in the air.  Exposures to outdoor radiation is typically non-threatening due to the ever changing atmosphere.  Radon really only becomes a hazard when it enters your home through foundation cracks or faults and remains trapped there.  The gas is actually eight times heavier than air and it likes to hang out in the lowest level of a building, like a basement.  Long-term exposure to levels exceeding the U.S. Air Force and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criteria could increase the risk of developing lung cancer, even in non-smokers.  Scientifically, radon is classified as a Class A, which is a known human carcinogen, and is the second leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco smoke.  At Offutt Air Force Base and in the immediate surrounding area, radon levels are naturally higher than many other parts of the country due to higher levels of uranium-bearing rock layers naturally occurring in the surface of the landscape.

So, what can you do to protect yourself from radon?  Radon testing is the only way to truly know if your family is at risk.  There are home kits and testing devices you can purchase at your local hardware store, but it is highly recommended to contact a licensed radon mitigation official.  If the test results are greater than the EPA criteria then you will need to install a mitigation device to lower the radon levels in your home.  These devices reduce radon levels by up to 99 percent.  The system pumps the radon gas from under your flooring where it is then redirected up and outside to dissipate.  Even if you have a system in place, it is recommended to test your home annually to ensure your exposures are well below the criteria of 4.0 picoCuries per Liter of air (pCi/L).

Currently, the 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron bioenvironmental engineering (BE) office is performing a radon study of Offutt Air Force Base to determine the radon levels across the base and build a more comprehensive baseline.  Once the study is complete in 2017, BE will provide the results to each squadron to aid in remediation efforts if necessary.  Contact the BE office at (402)-294-6319 if you have any questions regarding radon.

For more information on radon, check out www.epa.gov/radon.