Exposure to Radon

  • How does radon get into the environment?

Radon-222 is the radioactive decay product of radium-226, which is found at low concentrations in almost all rock and soil. Radon is generated in rock and soil, and it creeps up to the outside air. Although outdoor concentrations of radon are typically low, about 0.4 picoCuries per liter (pCi/l) of air, it can seep into buildings through foundation cracks or openings and build up to much higher concentrations indoors.

The average indoor radon concentration is about 1.3 pCi/l of air. It is not uncommon, though, for indoor radon levels to be found in the range of 5 - 50 pCi/l, and they have been found as high as 2,000 pCi/l. The concentration of radon measured in a house depends on many factors, including the design of the house, local geology and soil conditions, and the weather. Radon's decay products are all metallic solids, and when radon decay occurs in air, the decay products can cling to aerosols and dust, which makes them available for inhalation into the lungs.

Radon easily dissolves in water. In areas of the country that have high radium content in soils and rocks, local ground water may contain high concentrations of radon. For example, underlying rock such as granite, or phosphate rock, typically have increased uranium and radium, and therefore radon. While radon easily dissolves into water, it also easily escapes from water when exposed to the atmosphere, especially if it is stirred or agitated. Consequently, radon concentrations are very low in rivers and lakes, but could still be high in water pumped from the ground. Some natural springs, such as those at Hot Springs, Arkansas, contain radon, and were once considered healthful.

  • How does radon change in the environment?

Because radon is a chemically inert (unreactive) gas, it can move easily through rock and soil and arrive at the surface. The half-life of radon-222 is 3.8 days. As it undergoes radioactive decay, radon-222 releases alpha radiation and changes to polonium-218, a short-lived radioactive solid. After several more decay transformations, the series ends at lead-206, which is stable.

Radon dissolves in water, and easily leaves water that is exposed to the atmosphere, especially if the water is agitated. Consequently, radon levels are very low in rivers and lakes, but water drawn from underground can have elevated radon concentrations. Radon that decays in water, leaves only solid decay products which will remain in the water as they decay to stable lead.

  • How are people exposed to radon?

Most of the public's exposure to natural radiation comes from radon which can accumulate in homes, schools, and office buildings. EPA estimates that the national average indoor radon level in homes is about 1.3 pCi/l of air. We also estimate that about 1 in 15 homes nationwide have levels at or above the level of 4 pCi/l, the level at which EPA recommends taking action to reduce concentrations. Levels greater than 2,000 pCi/l of air have been measured in some homes.

Radon is also found in the water in homes, in particular, homes that have their own well rather than municipal water. When the water is agitated, as when showering or washing dishes, radon escapes into the air. However, radon from domestic water generally contributes only a small proportion (less than 1%) of the total radon in indoor air. Municipal water systems hold and treat water, which helps to release radon, so that levels are very low by the time the water reaches our homes. But, people who have private wells, particularly in areas of high radium soil content, may be exposed to higher levels of radon.

  • How does radon get into the body?

People may ingest trace amounts of radon with food and water, However, inhalation is the main route of entry into the body for radon and its decay products. Radon decay products may attach to particulates and aerosols in the air we breathe (for example, cooking oil vapors). When they are inhaled, some of these particles are retained in the lungs. Radon decay products also cling to tobacco leaves, which are sticky, during the growing season, and enter the lungs when tobacco is smoked. Smoke in indoor environments also is very effective at picking up radon decay products from the air and making them available for inhalation. It is likely that radon decay products contribute significantly to the risk of lung cancer from cigarette smoke.

  • What does radon do once it gets into the body?

Most of the radon gas that you inhale is also exhaled. However, some of radon's decay products attach to dusts and aerosols in the air and are then readily deposited in the lungs. Some of these are cleared by the lung's natural defense system, and swallowed or coughed out. Those particles that are retained long enough release radiation damaging surrounding lung tissues. A small amount of radon decay products in the lung are absorbed into the blood.

Most of the radon ingested in water is excreted through the urine over several days. There is some risk from drinking water with elevated radon, because radioactive decay can occur within the body where tissues, such as the stomach lining, would be exposed. However, alpha particles emitted by radon and its decay product in water prior to drinking quickly lose their energy and are taken up by other compounds in water, and do not themselves pose a health concern.