EDITORIAL: Radon, For Your Health… Part Two

Read Part One

At the June 28 joint meeting of the Town and County, local builder Steve Schwartz presented a compelling argument for a community-wide upgrade to the 2015 version of the International Residential Code. The IRC — similar to the International Building Code used for commercial buildings — is updated every three years by the International Code Council, in an effort to insure that local building regulations effectively protect public health and safety while avoiding both unnecessary costs and unreasonable preferential treatment of specific construction methods. A group of local construction industry representatives have spent the past couple of years reviewing the changes to the IRC since 2006 — the most recent version of the IRC adopted by the Town and County governments.

According to Mr. Schwartz, the technologies used in modern house construction are in a constant state of ‘improvement’ — which might mean, ‘more cost effective’… or ‘more profitable’… or it might mean ‘providing a superior housing product.’  Some of the technological ‘improvements’ are the direct result of resource depletion, such as the disappearance, globally, of old growth timber and other traditional building materials. Not all of the ‘improvements’ are necessarily good for the environment, or for human health.

In the 2015 International Residential Code, U.S. counties with “High Radon Potential” are listed in Table AF101(1) in Appendix F.  Archuleta County is not in that list; neither are the neighboring counties of La Plata, Mineral, or Hinsdale.

The 2015 codes states:

“Inclusion of this appendix by jurisdictions shall be determined through the use of locally available data, or determination of Zone 1 designation in.. Table AF101(1).”

Government regulation of home construction nearly always causes an increase in the overall cost of construction. I cannot, in fact, think of any building regulation that makes home construction less expensive. And since the entire nation is currently undergoing a housing shortage — and especially, a shortage of housing for the working class — we might want to think long and hard about regulations that make housing less affordable.

So let’s ask the question. Is radon a danger to human existence? Or is it a beneficial substance that we ought to welcome into our homes?

In the historical development of medical science, radon is a late arrival — as is radiation in general. It was not until 1895 that scientists began documenting a collection of “invisible rays” emitted by certain chemical elements such as uranium and radium. These invisible rays — radiation — consist of x-rays, gamma rays, beta rays and alpha rays.

In a very real sense, radiation is a natural, daily occurrence affecting all animal and plant life.  The question facing the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners at their July 5 regular meeting was whether radon — a natural source of radiation — should be “mitigated” in all new house construction in Archuleta County.

The answer to that question depends to a large degree upon whether you believe the “science” coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is “good science” or “bad science.”

About half the radiation dose to which an average American is exposed, annually, comes from voluntary medical procedures. (According to the EPA.) About another third comes from “radon exposure.” (According to the EPA.) The remainder comes from outer space, various “background” sources, and from radioactive chemicals naturally contained inside the body.

As we mentioned, there are various types of radiation, including alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, and x-rays. On its website, the EPA seems to imply that all types of radiation are equally harmful.. but we know that is not the case.

The type of radiation given off by radon consists of alpha particles. Because alpha radiation is unable to penetrate the skin, it is assumed to be harmful only if the source is ingested or inhaled. From what I can gather, however, the EPA has never measured the amount of radon or radon by-products ingested or inhaled when calculating average radiation exposure to radon.

As a relatively heavy gas, radon tends to collect in basements and crawl spaces. Its “half-life” is approximately 4 days, meaning that, if we collected 100 radon atoms in a box, about 50 of those atoms would have “decayed” into a different element after 48 hours.

Radon changes (“decays”) into the element polonium as a result of releasing its alpha radiation.

Polonium is a solid, and does not float in the air, unless it accidentally attaches itself to dust particles. More likely, however, the resulting polonium atoms — which are also radioactive, and also release alpha radiation — would attach themselves to a large surface, such as the walls, floor or ceiling of the house.

The half-life of polonium is 3 minutes, as it decays into a radioactive form of lead, Pb 214, which sticks around for, on average, another 24 minutes before decaying into radioactive Bismuth. All of these “radon progeny” are solids, not gases. Are we breathing them, in our homes? And if so, are they subsequently removed from our lungs through the body’s natural cleansing processes?

Apparently, the EPA is not interested in those questions.

We have a few facts that scientists generally agree on. Scientists generally agree that very high doses of radiation sometimes — but not always — lead to a higher-than-normal incidence of certain cancers. This was observed, for example, in studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivors. Among nearly 100,000 Japanese citizens exposed to the radiation from atomic bombs 70 years ago, about 1,000 developed cancers that researchers attribute to radiation exposure from an atomic bomb.

For comparison:

Among 100,000 ordinary Americans, meanwhile, about 455 will develop some form of cancer this year. (National Cancer Institute.) At that rate, we would see 32,000 new cases of cancer per 100,000 Americans, over the next 70 years. That’s 100,000,000 new cases of cancer, based on the 2017 U.S. population.

Determining if any of those cases resulted from residential radon exposure is an impossible task. So the EPA doesn’t even try. They simply start with a “premise” that radon exposure causes cancer, no matter how low the dose.

From the EPA website:

Current science suggests there is some cancer risk from any exposure to radiation. However, it is very hard to tell whether a particular cancer was caused by very low doses of radiation or by something else. While experts disagree over the exact definition and effects of “low dose,” U.S. radiation protection standards are based on the premise that any radiation dose carries some risk, and that risk increases directly with dose. This method of estimating risk is called the “linear no-threshold model (LNT).”

So tomorrow, we will pay a visit to a physicist named Bernard Cohen, and see how the LNT model actually plays out in real life.

Read Part Three…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.