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Radon Gas: The Invisible Killer That's Bigger Than Carbon Monoxide

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By Ruth MacEachern

Product Manager

Aug 02, 2019

Most of us have heard of carbon monoxide and its deadly consequences. The thought of a scentless, invisible gas that can quietly kill is enough to make most people buy carbon monoxide detectors and remain aware of the potential risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, most people have not heard of radon gas, which is just as deadly but far less known. Awareness is the first step towards taking safety precautions and protecting your family, so it is vital to educate yourself about radon, its risks, and how to avoid them. 

What is radon? 

Radon is a scentless, colourless gas that is also radioactive. It is created through the gradual decay of small quantities of uranium, which naturally occur in all rocks and soils. As radioactive materials break down, they also release radiation in the process. According to Public Health England, all forms of radiation can damage living tissue and cause cancer risks, and as such, radon presents a notable risk to human health. 

Radioactivity becomes a risk when unstable elements like uranium, thorium and radon, begin to degenerate. All of these elements are naturally occurring, but when they start to decay, energy is released, and new, different elements are formed in the process. 

This energy that is released is called radiation, which can be released in the form of alpha or beta particles and gamma rays. Alpha particles contain more energy than beta particles or gamma rays and, as a result, they are more harmful when they come into contact with living beings.

Where is radon?

As radon is a radioactive gas that is released from the uranium that naturally occurs in rocks and soils, it is everywhere. Although it can be found both indoors and outdoors, in most areas, the health risks of radon are low. You can use Public Health England’s radon map to find the locations in the UK with the highest levels of radon. However, it should be noted that not all structures and buildings have high levels of radon, even in the darkest areas of the map. 

Am I exposed to radon?

All of us are exposed to radiation from both man-made and natural sources. These levels of radiation only become a concern when they reach a certain level. However, we are particularly exposed to radon. The average radon level in UK homes is 20 Bq m-3 – this is roughly half of the radiation exposure, or dose, that we all have. This means that if you are in an environment with an unusually high radon level, you will be experiencing a potentially concerning increase in radioactivity.

If some radiation is naturally occurring, why is it harmful?

Radioactive elements are in the process of decay. When radioactive particles are released at this stage, they can be inhaled and enter into the lungs. As the particles are in the process of decaying, they will continue to deteriorate while in the lungs and will release both alpha particles and radiation. 

These alpha particles and radiation are then absorbed by the lung tissues and can cause internal damage, which could potentially even lead to lung cancer. There have been many studies around the world that show greater exposure to radon increases the risk of developing lung cancer. Public Health England has found that it is statistically safer to work as a nuclear fuel plant worker than it is to live in a house at 200 Bq m-3. 

Radon in homes

Every building contains radon. However, that being said, the levels of radon in homes are usually low. The possibility of having a home with a higher level of radon depends on the type of ground the house is situated on. On top of that, radon can even vary between neighbouring homes just based on the homes’ construction and the different living styles in each house. 

Radon comes from the ground, and so it is drawn into homes through gaps, cracks, and fissures in the floor. Additionally, the air pressure inside homes is usually lower than the air pressure outside, and this leads to the radon being drawn inside. The only way to find out the level of radon in your home, and whether or not it is dangerous is to have the air quality in your home professionally tested.

Due to the serious health risks associated with radon, it is important that it is taken seriously by all property owners, in the same way that other toxins are taken seriously. Just as landlords provide carbon monoxide detectors, fire alarms and fire extinguishers as a basic duty of care to their tenants, it is imperative that landlords educate themselves about the risks associated with radon. Landlords have a responsibility to be aware of the potential health hazards on their property and they should have their properties inspected for radon levels so that if their property does happen to have unusually high levels of radon, they are able to take potentially life-saving actions and ensure their tenants are protected.

Radon in the workplace

As would be expected, radon is also found in the workplace. UK law requires that all employers to assess the potential risks their staff face while at work. As radon is inescapable in the workplace, employers have a responsibility to be aware of the radon levels in their worksites and facilities. Employers need to perform testing for radon in all high-risk locations. 

For areas where there are higher levels of radon, it is important to educate employees, residents and property owners about the health risks associated with radon so that they will be better prepared to protect their own homes and families. Radon is so harmful that in offices, where workplace risks and hazards are low, radon can be the most significant occupational health risk that office workers face. With this in mind, Public Health England have provided guidance on dealing with radon in the workplace. 

How can I reduce the levels of radon in my home? 

While we all experience some amounts of radon, it is possible to reduce the level of radon exposure in your home. Most of us did not first consult maps showing radon affected areas before buying a house, and if you now know that you live in one of these areas, you can take steps to reduce the impact of radon in your home. 

As with carbon monoxide, there are a few easy and simple ways to lessen the impact of radiation. Radon seeps into homes through the ground, so sealing openings or cracks in floors is a great first step. Additionally, sealing around loft-hatches helps reduce radon.

Radon and ventilation

The best way to reduce radon, however, is through proper ventilation. More than sealing cracks in the floor or opening windows, a high-quality ventilation system will help to ensure that purified air is circulated throughout the home. Ventilation systems such as EnviroVent’s Positive Input Ventilation line ensure that safe, purified air is circulating through your home and that toxic particles and gases like radon are minimised. 

Ventilation systems are so effective because the circulation of purified air dilutes the amount of radon in the air. In addition to diluting harmful gases, ventilation systems also clean the air that passes through them from allergens like pollen and from other harmful substances like toxic organic compounds. 

Also, unlike turning on fans and opening windows, once you install a ventilation system, you can step back and let the ventilator work, without having to adjust it or continually turn it on manually. This means that you have one less thing to worry about and can trust that the ventilator will always be working in the background – there is no possibility for it to be forgotten.