[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
RADON OPINION PIECE
Attached is an opinion piece by editorial writer, David Averill.
The article appeared in the Sunday, July 28, 1996, issue of the Tulsa World
. I encouraged Mr. Averill to write the article and acted as a background
source. I'm not sure Mr. Averill got everything exactly right, but I think
he did an admirable job in presenting a complex issue to the public. Some
of you have an interest in this topic. You should also encourage your
local press to address this issue. The public is asked to spend large sums
of money on residential radon. The public has a right to know how and why
their money is being spent.
Radon: The Sky Isn't Really Falling
By David Averill, Editorial Writer
Suppose, for the sake of scientific research, that you heated 1,000 pots of
water to boiling - 212 degrees Fahrenheit - and had 1,000 people stick
their hands in them for 30 seconds. You would find that 1,000 people
suffered fairly severe burns to their hands.
Then, let's say you wished to apply, or extrapolate, your findings to less
risky situations. You might assume, based on your original finding, that
if you were to have another 1,000 subjects stick their hands in water
heated to half the boiling temperature - 106 degrees Fahrenheit - 500 of
them would suffer serious burns. Further, you might extrapolate your
findings to the broader population and estimate that half of all serious
burn incidents in the nation were caused by hands being plunged into 106-
That, of course, is ludicrous. Water at 106 degrees is just a little
warmer than normal body temperature. You could hold your hand in it all
day long and not get burned.
Yet that is essentially the process -- extrapolation from a worst-case
scenario -- that led the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s to
warn that low levels of radon gas sometimes found in homes were responsible
for up to 10 percent of the 150,000 or so lung cancer deaths in the United
States each year.
The EPA recommended that homeowners test for radon and if they found levels
of 4 picocuries per liter of air, that they take remedial action, such as
installing fans or vents to prevent accumulations of the gas. Americans
have spent an estimated $400 million on radon testing and remediation.
Now there is a growing body of scientific evidence, including a credible
new study from Finland that was announced earlier this month, that there is
no connection between residential levels of radon and lung cancer.
Although the radon scare is nearly a decade old, the issue is timely
because of the Finnish study and because the Nationaluncil on Radiation
Protection, which conducted the study upon which the EPA warnings were
based, is restudying the issue. There is a fear that the council will
repeat original missteps and simply reconfirm its original findings.
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that is formed from the decay of uranium
and radium in soil and rocks. It can accumulate in small amounts in houses
and buildings. When inhaled into the lungs, radon leaves radioisotopes
which, in heavy enough doses and over time, can cause lung cancer.
The key phrase there is "heavy enough doses."
David S. Gooden, director of biomedical physics at Tulsa's Saint Francis
Hospital, says that the radiation protection council, in its original
scientific survey, ignored studies that showed no link between low levels
of radiation and lung cancer.
Gooden, who enjoys a national reputation in the field, says that one of the
oldest and most famous of the studies began in the early 1950s. It dealt
with workers who painted watch dials with glow-in-the-dark radium (and who
frequently licked their brushes to keep the tips sharp). When the studies
were terminated in the 1980s, after 30 years, no abnormally high rates of
lung cancer had been found among the watch-dial painters.
In the recent Finnish study, researchers analyzed residential exposure to
radon among 1,055 lung cancer patients and compared the findings with radon
exposure of 1,544 people without lung cancer. Researchers at the Finnish
Centre for Radiation and Nuclear Safety concluded that "radon exposure does
not appear to be an important cause of lung cancer."
Gooden says that despite EPA estimates that 10 percent of the nation's lung
cancer deaths are caused by residential radon, no study has identified any
such cases. There is no scientific or statistical link.
The problem is the manner in which the EPA warnings evolved.
The radiation protection council's role was not to conduct original
scientific research, but to review the existing scientific literature --
previous findings -- and look for consensus. It relied on statistics
involving hard rock miners in West Virginia who were exposed to extremely
high levels of radon, and who developed lung cancer with abnormally high
The council established what is known in scientific circles as a "linear,
no threshold model" to extrapolate the lung cancer numbers among high-risk
miners to lesser exposures. "Linear" in this case means straight-ahead,
directly proportional: If radiation exposure at a certain level is linked
to a number of lung cancer deaths, then a proportionately smaller radon
dose must cause a proportionately smaller number of cancer deaths.
Trouble is, nothing in nature is linear. Remember the admittedly silly
analogy with 212-degree water and 106-degree water. The council and the
EPA erred in extrapolating downward numbers from one limited, worst-case
study, and in disregarding studies that found no link between low-level
radiation and lung cancer.
Furthermore, the original study of the miners were flawed. It dealt with
mining conditions that no longer exist: Dust was so thick that miners
could barely see their hands in front of their faces, ventilation was
inadequate, diesel and other potentially hazardous fumes hung in the
underground atmosphere. The study did not take into account other factors:
Many of the miners were heavy smokers, for example.
The radiation protection council's survey and resulting EPA warnings appear
to fall into the category of junk science, which is done to confirm a
preconceived opinion -- in this case that residential radon causes cancer -
- not for the sake of scientific inquiry. The purposes of junk science are
to frighten people, to loosen governmental purse strings, to affect public
The council and the EPA now have the opportunity to correct earlier
missteps, to apply serious science, not junk science, to the radiation
issue. It may be easier said than done. There are human egos involved,
after all, and economics. Radon testing and remediation have become good
business -- $400 million spent to date in the United States. Ending the
radon scare would cost jobs and income.
EPA should go the serious-science route. Please, no more Chicken Little
warnings without solid evidence. There are enough real hazards in everyday
life without inventing make-believe ones to frighten people.