Radon is an odorless and colorless gas that is the result of natural uranium decay in rock and soil. Unfortunately, radon is also the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer and accounts for over 20,000 deaths annually in the US. This is a major public health crisis, but luckily there is now simple residential testing and mitigation strategies. But how did we find out about this odorless colorless killer? It occurred later than you may have thought and completely by accident….
Scientists had been aware of the radioactive isotope since 1899 when the properties of the rest of the noble gasses were classified and in the periodic table. However, radon in homes was not discovered until 1984 in Pennsylvania when Stanley Watras began working at the brand new Limerick Nuclear Power Plant as a construction engineer. The plant installed radiation detectors at the entrances so that employees could ensure that they were not tracking radioactive material out into the community. One morning Stanley arrived at work and set off the radiation detectors when he entered the building… but production at the plant had not started yet. It was discovered that the radioactive material was coming from his house! The EPA began investigating and discovered high levels of radon in the Watras’ home and in several others in their neighborhood due to construction on a rocky belt that contained elevated concentrations of uranium. The homes that were most effective were built on top of cracks which allow the radon to flow into the home. Luckily, the EPA were also able to use this information to develop sealing methods that mitigated this flow and got the homes back down to healthy levels and as of 2015 Stanley and his wife were still healthy and living in their home. This strange and accidental discovery has helped to raise awareness of a serious health issue that can impact us all!
Elevated levels of radon are present in about half of homes in Colorado due to the rock patterns in our state. The age and type of home does not matter and anyone can be affected. Our community can easily protect itself by testing for radon and doing some relatively inexpensive fixes. Walking Mountains is happy to provide free testing kits and rebates on mitigation expenses to help keep our community safe!