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Natural causes of air pollution: Radon Emissions

What is radon?

Radon (which has the symbol Rn and its atomic number is 86) is a chemical element belonging to noble gases, very radioactive, colorless, odorless and tasteless. This is the reason why radon is also called invisible gas or “the silent killer”. In solid form it is reddish. It is the earth’s only naturally produced radioactive gas and comes from the breakdown of radium, uranium in soil, rock, and water.

This air pollutant is highly radioactive in nature, and it can cause some serious health damages to people who breathe it. In fact, it is the second largest contributing factor to lung cancer in human beings after smoking. It causes an estimated 1,100 deaths from lung cancer every year.

Because the level of radioactivity is directly related to the number and type of radioactive atoms present, radon and all other radioactive atoms are measured in picocuries.

Radon decay

Radon is diffused out of the air all the time in variable quantities depending on the pressure drop. Such pressure drops can accompany or precede the shearing of rocks in an earthquake. It disperses and decays very quickly, with a half-life of 3.8 days.

Radon decay products (RDPs) such as polonium (218), lead (214) and bismuth (214) are measured in working levels (WL).

Radon at home

Why do some houses have high levels of indoor radon while nearby houses do not? The reasons lie primarily in the geology of radon, the factors that govern the occurrence of uranium, the formation of radon and the movement of radon, soil gas, and groundwater.

It can seep into buildings through cracks and holes in its foundations, where it can build up to dangerous levels. In Britain in 2018, the number of homes designated at risk was increased five-fold (from 100,000 to between 500,000 and 600,000), rendering millions more people officially vulnerable.

If you smoke or someone at home smokes, your family is exposed to radon, and therefore probabilities of lung cancer increase. Moreover, the only thing you can do to eradicate this type of gas is quit, and any time is good to reduce its exposure.

Due to health risks of radon exposure, it is recommended testing radon concentration before buying a house or while building it. However, if you want to analyze indoor air quality of your current home there are easy and fast techniques to test radon emissions by your own, for example with charcoal or digital tests.

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