EDITORIAL: Radon, For Your Health… Part Three

Read Part One

Alle Dinge sind Gift, und nichts ist ohne Gift, allein die Dosis macht dass ein Ding kein Gift ist.

— Paracelsus, 16th century Swiss physician

As noted in Part Two, yesterday, when we allow radon into our homes… and who doesn’t?… we’re also allowing minuscule amounts of radioactive and non-radioactive by-products — polonium, bismuth, lead — into our homes.

When we allow government to get involved in public health, we are also allowing politics and, potentially, “politically-directed science,” into our homes.

At yesterday’s July 11 Archuleta Board of County Commissioners work session, Commissioner Michael Whiting indicated a noteworthy change in his political outlook, concerning County regulation of residential construction. A week ago, Mr. Whiting had spoken out in support of the U.S. Environmental Protection District (EPA) recommendations regarding radon gas mitigation. Those EPA recommendations describe the “safe” limit of radon radiation as “4 picoCuries per liter.”  In order to address that recommended limit, the Archuleta County government currently requires all new homes to include “radon mitigation.”

But at yesterday’s BOCC work session, Mr. Whiting expressed a somewhat different sentiment, addressing his comments to his fellow commissioner, Ronnie Maez — who has, in the past, expressed opposition to requiring mitigation.

Michael Whiting:

“Ronnie, I did more homework on radon — and I got schooled by a local citizen — and I’ve come to appreciate your point of view. My view has shifted, in terms of County policy.

“To regulate or not to regulate — that’s sort of the Shakespearean question.”

Mr. Whiting is not the only person involved in government regulation who seems to have changed his view of radon recently. We noted — also in Part Two — that the Town and County are considering an update to the International Residential Code. Currently, both local building departments use the 2006 version of the IRC. If you read the “Radon” appendix in the 2006 code, it includes a very clear endorsement of the EPA belief that all exposures to natural radiation — including very low doses of radiation, such as comes from residential radon — are harmful.

The 2015 IRC code, however, includes no such endorsement of this belief. Instead, the 2015 version states, simply:

“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).”

This statement seems to be instructing local governments to make their own determination as to whether radon mitigation should be a requirement.

Some scientists and health officials, meanwhile, believe radon is actually beneficial, and should never be mitigated.

Let’s pay a visit to Bernie Cohen.

When Dr. Bernard Cohen — Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh — began measuring residential radon levels back in the late 1980s, his job was to quantify, with actual data, the Linear No Threshold (LNT) theory of radiation harm. That theory assumes that even very low levels of radon exposure will cause lung cancer in at least a few individuals. The EPA had studied very high doses of radon exposure, but no one had quantified the level of harm from very low doses.

Dr. Cohen and his team took radon measurements in approximately 350,000 American homes in 1,729 counties, and simultaneously took survey data from the residents in those homes. The counties surveyed comprised over half of all U.S. counties, and approximately 90 percent of the nation’s population. The team was specifically looking for a correlation between radon exposure and lung cancer, one of the most dangerous forms of cancer in America.

His form of analysis — comparing county-wide radon averages with county-wide lung cancer data — is known as “ecologic data.” It differs from case-controlled studies, which are more expensive and labor-intensive.

Much to Dr. Cohen’s surprise, the analysis of the data showed an inverse relationship between radon exposure and lung cancer. That is to say, Cohen’s data indicated found that homes with zero radon had a higher incidence of lung cancer than homes with considerable amounts of radon. In fact, the data suggested that the more radon you had in your home, the less chance you had of developing lung cancer.

Here’s a lengthy interview (28 minutes) with Dr. Cohen, wherein he describes his research and his conclusions.

Certain scientists disagree with Dr. Cohen’s conclusion that radon radiation might actually be a health benefit in low doses. One of them is Bill Field (R.W. Field) who serves in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. Dr. Field came across Part One of this article series in the Daily Post and forwarded two papers published in Health Physics that raise questions about Bernie Cohen’s conclusions (but not about his data.) You can view those papers here:

2004 Heath, Bond, Hoel, Meinhold

2003 Puskin

In Part One, I shared a couple of maps that seem to show an inverse correlation between lung cancer and residential radon, similar to the inverse relationship found in Bernie Cohen’s decade-long study.

Here they are again. The Blue areas in the first map show counties with very little radon. (U.S. Department of Energy.) These appear to be generally the same counties shown in Red in the second map, indicating elevated levels of lung-related cancers. (National Cancer Institute.)

Science has many theories about the way the universe works. One theory, developed back in the 16th century by a Swiss physician named Paracelus, can be translated:

All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.

The regular consumption of water is necessary to human life. Too much water can kill a person. The same goes for salt, Vitamin C, even oxygen.  The very thing that makes us healthier, in a low dose, can harm us in a high dosage.

This theory — that the dose alone determines whether something is harmful — is in direct conflict with the EPA’s theory regarding residential radon.

From what I can tell, the jury is still out, as to whether low doses of radon exposure are actually beneficial to human health. I do not recommend that you rip out the radon mitigation in your home, without first doing your own research into the connection between radon and human health.

I do, however, recommend that, faced with conflicting scientific data, our local governments leave the decision about whether to include radon mitigation in a new home, or an existing home, to the owner of the property.


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.