What is Radon and how does it hurt me?

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, radioactive gas. It comes from the decay (breakdown) of Uranium and Radium. These are radioactive solids that exist in the soil beneath our homes. When Radon, a radioactive gas, is produced, it rises through the dense soil and collects to enter our homes. Radon is an inert gas which means that the outer orbital of the Radon atom has a full compliment of electrons and the atom does not have a charge (unequal numbers of negative electrons to the number of positive protons in the same atom) which makes it non-reactive with other elements. This allows radon to flow through most mediums without bonding or being attracted to other atoms. It flows unencumbered through soil and rock to enter cracks in our floors and walls.

A characteristic of a radioactive atom is that the unstable nucleus releases subatomic particles in the form of radiation: Alpha, Beta, and/or Gamma. When Radon decays, it releases all three forms of radiation. With Radon, the dangerous one is the Alpha radiation. Alpha radiation is two protons that fly from the nucleus at great speed (two protons = one Alpha particle). When the Alpha particle leaves the nucleus a new element is formed thus starting the decay process of Radon to the longer term stable element of Lead 210. Along this decay process two decay products are produced called Polonium 214 and Polonium 218 that are very dangerous. Unlike Radon, these elements are not inert. They have voids in their outer orbital and carry a charge. Such atoms are called free radicals.

When Radon is drawn into the lungs, there is a good chance that it will be exhaled without causing any damage. When the Polonium's are inhaled, they stick to lung tissue. When they decay, Alpha particles are released directly into tissue. If chromosome damage occurs, this abnormal cell can form cancer. Among the many genes in our chromosomes is the suicide gene, P53. This gene will cause a damaged cell to die preventing abnormal growth. If an Alpha particle damages this gene, an abnormal cell can survive and continue to grow as lung cancer. This is a very rare series of events. This is why the more concentrated the Radon; the greater the number of hits; the higher the probability that cancer can form.

Cigarette smoke damages the lungs in a very similar way. A comparison has been made between the damage of lung tissue by cigarettes to exposure to Radon. If the exposure levels of Radon are at 11 pCi/L for 8 hours, the damage done is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes. That is a three pack a day exposure. Radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers and second only to cigarettes for smokers. In fact, Radon and cigarette smoke work synergistically increasing your chances of getting lung cancer ten fold.