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Radon Environmental Effects

By Rob Callahan ; Updated June 13, 2017

Radon is a radioactive gas that has no color, odor or taste. It occurs naturally in small concentrations in all soils, and in higher concentrations in granite, shale and phosphates. From the soil, radon can sink into ground water systems or rise into the atmosphere. Its greatest impact occurs when it becomes trapped and breaks down inside of buildings.

Effects of Radon in Soil

Radon enters the soil from uranium deposits. It also enters the soil through uranium and phosphate mines and through coal combustion. Because radon has a relatively short half-life of less than four days, some radon will break down into radon decay products in the soil.

The website for Lenntech, a provider of water treatment and purification systems, notes that radon gas emits very little gamma radiation. Radiation exposure or radiation sickness due to exposure through soil are unlikely, but radon decay products may enter the food chain if they become attached to plants or animals within the soil. Although studies have linked these particles to lung cancer when inhaled, their effects on other organs when ingested is unknown, so the greatest danger of radon gas within the soil is its potential to move up into the air before breaking down.

Effects of Radon in Water

Just as radon can move up through soil to the air above, it can sink into groundwater or enter water systems such as lakes and rivers. The effects of radon and radon decay products on aquatic life are unknown, as are the effects of ingesting fish contaminated with radon decay products. The greater danger of radon in water systems is its potential to enter buildings through tap water before breaking down.

Effects of Radon in Indoor Air

Radon gas is generally dispersed harmlessly as it enters the atmosphere, according to the Nevada Radon Education Program at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. However, it can enter indoor air systems through cracks in a building’s foundation. Inside, radon poses some health risks. Radon decay products become suspended in the air and, when inhaled, can attach to lung tissue. Over years of exposure, these particles can significantly impact the health of your lungs. Because of this, radon gas is classified as a Group A carcinogen, and is considered to cause lung cancer and other lung disease.

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