Radon Gas Exposure Symptoms: Avoid Poisoning Your Family
We’re exposed to thousands of substances every single day; in fact, some reports indicate as many as 700,000 or more elements may be floating around in the air we breathe as well as the foods and beverages we consume. Granted, many of them are harmless but others are highly toxic. Nature gives us certain elements while a number of them are byproducts of industrial processes. Some offer strong signs of their presence whereas others aren’t quite so obvious.
Radon falls into a couple of the more dangerous categories. Since its discovery in 1899, this element has found a place near the top of health officials’ lists of concerns. At the same time, it’s one of the silent and invisible threats we face on a daily basis. Unlike the noxious exhaust from a diesel vehicle or the chlorine used to treat public water supplies, it’s odorless, colorless and tasteless.
Although this potentially deadly force is all around us, few are truly aware of its presence or the associated dangers. With the right knowledge, you can protect yourself and your family from the hidden hazards. Hopefully, the following information will equip you with the tools you need to better understand this element and its potential effects as well as how to keep it at bay.
What Exactly is Radon?
Scientifically speaking, it’s chemical element number 86 on the Periodic Table identified by the symbol Rn. Created by the natural breakdown of Uranium and other radioactive elements, it’s a gas continually emanating from the ground into the air or leaching into our fresh water supply. It’s the heaviest gas to have been discovered so far.
A Brief History
In 1899, physicist Ernest Rutherford pinpointed radon’s alpha radiation emissions. A year later, fellow physicist Ernst Dorn traced the gas resulting from that radiation back to Radium, an element extracted from Uranium. Long before these discoveries, as early as the 1500’s, scientists began describing what was deemed at that time a “wasting disease” afflicting miners.
By the late 1870’s, this “wasting disease” was found to be lung cancer. It wasn’t until the mid-1900’s the link between radon and lung cancer was actually established. Once those studies took off, the scientific and medical communities began to understand just how widespread the radioactive gas really was.
How are People Subjected to this Element?
As mentioned, radon gas permeates our air and water. It’s everywhere, all the time, whether in trace amounts or at harmful levels. When it breaks down further into lead and various forms of polonium, it can also attach itself to dust and other tiny particles.
This is where the real issue lies. Once the gas’s progeny, as its byproducts are called in the scientific world, adhere to particles, they can become trapped in the lungs. It’s also possible to ingest those radioactive substances via drinking water.
Outside in the open, all these elements quickly disperse; however, inside is often a different story. Without the benefit of wide open spaces, this gas and the particles to which it clings tend to build up and become more concentrated. Since it’s heavier than the harmless gases in our atmosphere, it sinks to the lowest possible levels of homes and other structures.
In spite of being heavier, it also happens to be smaller than oxygen, hydrogen, helium and other gases. This diminutive size allows it to pass through virtually all construction materials. It gets into your home, and eventually into your lungs.
Studies have also revealed exposure may stem from certain types of building materials. The most common of these are granite countertops, particularly those with red hues. Other materials potentially infused with radiation may include cement, concrete and pumice. Commonly used ionization smoke detectors have also been found to give off small amounts of the gas.
Won’t My Air Conditioning Filter Help?
Being a noble gas, radon itself can’t be eliminated through the use of conventional air filters. Because its radioactive byproducts are much smaller than typical dust particles, air conditioning filters or home filtration systems aren’t effective at trapping those, either. The same is true of tap-mounted water filters: they won’t remove these harmful elements from your home’s water.
What are the Dangers of Radon Exposure?
When authorities mention gas accumulation, many people’s minds conjure up images of combustion. This isn’t an issue with radon. It’s radioactive, but not reactive. You don’t have to worry about sparking a massive explosion by flipping a light switch, igniting the grill or firing up a cigarette in the midst of a concentrated radon pocket.
Effects similar to those of other types of inhaled toxins also often come to mind. These don’t apply to radon exposure, either. Unlike carbon monoxide poisoning and inhalation of similar airborne substances, radon gas symptoms don’t include the quick onset of headaches, dizziness and nausea or ultimately succumbing to unbearable drowsiness.
Radon is a known carcinogen, meaning it’s a cancer-causing agent. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute and the Surgeon General’s Office, an estimated 20,000 fatal cases of lung cancer each year in America alone can be attributed to exposure. It’s the country’s second leading cause of lung cancer, and the primary contributing factor among non-smokers.
When particles infused with broken-down variations of the gas are breathed in, they become lodged in the lungs where they continue to give off radiation long after they’ve been inhaled. This radioactive exposure is the factor responsible for the development of lung cancer. In some rare cases, exposure through drinking water has been linked to other forms cancer, but these are few and far between.
To put matters into perspective, only about 20 annual stomach cancer-related deaths out of 13,000 have been attributed to radon in drinking water according to a report from the National Research Council. The Environmental Protection Agency further states exposure could account for a small percentage of colon and liver cancer cases, as well.
What are Some Common Radon Exposure Symptoms?
One of the most dangerous aspects of exposure to this noble gas is its initial lack of symptoms. In truth, people can spend years surrounded by high levels of radon before developing any telltale signs whatsoever. As is the case with an array of other toxins, byproducts of the gas’s degeneration build up in the body gradually over time, eventually leading to cell mutation. By the time symptoms of radon poisoning begin to present themselves, cancer may have already taken hold.
Radon poisoning symptoms include frequent respiratory infections like bronchitis or pneumonia. Those exposed to high levels of the radioactive gas for long periods of time might also experience wheezing, breathing difficulties, unshakable and continually worsening cough and coughing up blood. Loss of appetite and other indications associated with cancer may likewise be present.
Could I Have Been Exposed to this Element?
The short answer to this question is yes; in all likelihood, you have been exposed to a certain amount of radon at some point in your life. Everyone has. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to book an appointment with a local oncologist, though. More important than whether you’ve been exposed is the question of to what levels were you subjected. The higher the amount of radon in your normal surroundings, the greater the risk is to you.
At What Level is this Type of Radiation Safe?
In all honesty, experts from the Environmental Protection Agency emphasize no amount of radon is truly safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and numerous other authorities agree with this assessment. Still, the lower the levels to which you’re exposed, the better off you’ll be.
Experts measure radiation concentration in units known as picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. Typical outdoor levels of this particular gas hover around 0.4 pCi/L. Though some risk of lung cancer is present at even this low concentration, authorities have deemed it the acceptable level for indoor air.
Based in information from the National Academy of Sciences, the threat of developing radon-related lung cancer grows 16 percent for each 2.7 pCi/L increase above the target low. A concentration of 4 pCi/L has been established as the action level by the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning remediation efforts need to be taken if indoor amounts exceed this level. While no set regulations apply to concentration in water, the EPA and other agencies recommend no more than 10,000 pCi/L be present.
Who is at Risk?
Since this gas can be found everywhere, virtually everyone is at risk of exposure. Studies indicate at least 66 percent of American homes exceed the target low of 0.4 pCi/L. Those whose indoor air bears greater than the established 4 pCi/L action level need to take measures to mitigate the situation. Certain other groups should also use caution, including:
Underground Workers: Miners remain among those most endangered by radon, but anyone working in an enclosed space below ground level would be exposed to higher amounts of this type of radiation despite advancements in ventilation techniques. Those living in basement apartments may also want to take heed.
Employees of Certain Processing Facilities: This mainly applies to Uranium processing plants, but could also extend to workers who are exposed to phosphates.
Smokers: According to the EPA, the chances of developing lung cancer for a non-smoker who is regularly exposed to concentrations of 4pCi/L are about 7 in 1,000; in contrast, the odds for smokers continually subjected to the same level are approximately 62 in 1,000.
Children: Aside from the eventuality of developing lung cancer, some studies have linked excess exposure to certain forms of childhood leukemia. Whether this heightened risk can be attributed to smaller lung capacity or the more rapid cell growth and division of youth remains unclear.
Those in Homes with Wells: Radiation is more of a concern with private wells than public water supplies because radon progeny affect ground water via the surrounding rocks and soil. Radiation makes its way into the air inside homes through this water and, in isolated incidents, is believed to contribute to the risk of various forms of cancer due to ingestion.
A handful of researchers have also delved into the potential effects of exposure on pets though their findings have been largely inconclusive. Regardless, many believe the risks are similar to those of humans. Because cancer rates among cats and dogs in households with indoor smokers are higher than those living with non-smokers, a number of scientists hypothesize high radiation levels would affect pets in the same manner.
How Can My Family and I Avoid Exposure?
You can’t avoid exposure altogether because this gas and its byproducts are everywhere. That being said, you can take steps to minimize your risk.
What Measures Can My Family Take to Reduce the Dangers of Exposure?
First and foremost, the benefits of testing can’t be emphasized enough. You’ll find testing kits at your local hardware store and they’re available in both short and long-term varieties. Short-term home testing kits record concentration levels over the course of two to seven days whereas long-term kits span 90 days.
Authorities strongly recommend the long-term versions as radon levels tend to rise and fall on a regular basis. Both come with detailed instructions for use and are sent to labs for analysis. You can also hire certified professionals who use digital testing equipment to determine concentration levels inside your home. Home test kits and professional companies generate results of similar quality and costs are comparable. You can have your water tested by a local lab, as well, if you suspect your well may be affected by radiation.
Testing gives you greater peace of mind, but it’s not the end of the road. If your concentration levels are higher than the 0.4 pCi/L target, or you just want to go the extra mile for greater protection, you have plenty of radon reduction options at your disposal. Some are more effective than others; furthermore, you may want to implement an array of different solutions rather than a sole safety net.
Block it: This harmful gas emanates from the soil underneath your home and makes its way inside through gaps in flooring, walls, plumbing entry and exit points and any other cracks or crevices it can find. Caulk or seal any potential openings, or have a professional carry out this task for you, to prevent as much as possible from coming into your home.
Counteraction: Simple ventilation can help decrease indoor exposure to some extent. While keeping your windows open continually may not be practical, installing fans blowing fresh air into the lowest levels of your home, such as a basement or crawlspace, can aid in lowering concentration levels. Experts note having these fans blowing air inside rather than pulling interior air outside is crucial when using this tactic.
Mitigation Systems: Two distinct types of whole-house systems have been designed specifically for reducing interior radon levels: one is installed inside and the other outside. Both operate on the principle of creating air pressure differentials inside and outside the home. They effectively draw the gas from the soil underneath a structure, direct it through a series of pipes and send it outside where it’s more easily diluted. These systems have been said to decrease radon concentration by 80 percent or more.
Hepa Filters: The American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists states Hepa Filters may lower radiation levels by up to 85 percent. Certain other air filters have also been designed to remove these tiniest of radioactive molecules. They’re advertised as being able to remove 70 percent or more of the gas’s progeny from indoor air.
Water Filtration: As is the case with air filters, not all water filters are capable of eliminating radon. Those using granular activated carbon have been found to be an exception to the rule. Radioactive molecules adhere to the carbon rather than remaining in your drinking water. Aeration treatments may also help mitigate the risk of exposure. This entails mixing air with water followed by venting the air before it reaches your taps. Authorities note either option should be installed at the water’s point of entry into a home rather than directly on each individual faucet.
Several factors should be considered when choosing which measures are appropriate for your home. Health officials insist having an inspection carried out by a certified professional would be your safest route when making this determination. Homeowners are also advised against do-it-yourself installation of devices and systems meant to reduce radiation levels.
Contractors are now offering radon-resistant construction methods for new builds. These incorporate plastic sheeting designed specifically to repel the products of this gas’s decay as well as built-in attic ventilation fans. In some cases, you may be able to have your home retro-fitted with these tools.
For a bit of extra security, home monitors are also available. They provide continual evaluation of indoor air quality. Much like smoke detectors, these permanently installed monitoring devices sound a clearly audible alarm if concentration levels rise above the acceptable limit.
Fight Radiation with a Healthier Diet
Health experts also believe you can reduce your risks of developing exposure-related illnesses through certain dietary changes. Studies show some foods can help combat the cellular damage caused by radiation. Those topping this list include:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Green Tea
- Vitamin C, Zinc and Selenium Supplements
Reports indicate foods like these contain agents known to help fight carcinogens and even prevent cancer cell growth when consumed in adequate amounts. It should be noted this isn’t recommended as a sole means of protection against radon poisoning. Still, research points to as much as a 50 percent decrease in the risk of developing various types of cancer when incorporating these anti-carcinogens into your diet.
In a Nutshell
Radon is present in all parts of the world with its greatest concentrations near and below ground level. Though you can’t see, smell or taste it, you can be sure it’s in your home as well as your place of business. At concentrations of 0.4 pCi/L, the dangers of exposure are considered within acceptable limits by health agencies.
Due to its small atomic size and high mass, radon and the byproducts of its decay are able to penetrate most construction materials. Once this happens, they linger in lower-lying areas of homes and other structures. Concentrations tend to be higher in basements as well as first, second and third floors of buildings, but these molecules aren’t restricted to such areas.
This gas and its progeny are being held responsible for a higher prevalence of lung cancer but exposure has also been linked to other forms of cancer, including leukemia. Signs of toxic exposure won’t arise immediately; instead, they develop over a prolonged period of time. Radon symptoms mimic those of lung cancer and include:
- Otherwise unexplained loss of appetite
- Chronic cough accompanied by bloody expulsion from the lungs
- Breathing difficulties
- Frequent respiratory infections
While no one is immune to the effects of exposure, those most vulnerable are smokers, workers in underground facilities, children, people relying on wells for their home’s water supply, residents in areas with high concentrations of the gas and, potentially, pets. Having your home assessed by a professional or through the use of a long-term DIY testing kit is advised. Should lab results reveal levels above 0.4 pCi/L, remedial steps should be taken.
You can’t avoid being exposed to this type of radiation. Its levels and the dangers they present to those in your home can be lowered, but not completely eliminated. A number of techniques can be used to help reduce the risks involved, such as:
- Sealing any gaps in your home
- Adequate ventilation
- Professionally installed mitigation systems
- Hepa filtration
- Water aeration systems or whole-house GAC filtration
- Home monitoring systems
Studies also point to certain foods as having an ability to fight cell damage. Some caution and controversy surround the theory of incorporating dietary changes to help lower your chances of succumbing to radiation toxicity. If you choose to make these dietary changes, they should be only one element of a more extensive protection plan.
You can’t live your life in fear of being exposed to radon and its progeny. They’re part of the dangers of everyday life just as much as the chances of being injured in an automobile accident or acquiring some type of contagion like the common cold. That being said, you can arm yourself with an understanding of these radioactive elements and use this to help lower the risks of exposure for yourself and your loved ones.