Sunday, February 27, 2011

Radioactive Radon in the home, natural gas, and the New York Times

Three years ago, Nuclear Green began a thread based on my father's research on radioactive radon in natural gas. A few months after I posted my father's account of his research on radon in natural gas, I posted a discussion of radiation on Barnett Shale titled, "The Radioactive Texans." I argued,
We know thes things:

There are undoubtedly uranium and thorium associated with Barnett Shale.

Radon is a natural daughter product of Uranium and Thorium decay.

Radon is persent in natural gas.

The half life of radon-222 is 3.8 days.
Fron these facts I concluded,
Thus radon from Barnett shale sources could easily travel up a gas well from its Barnett Shale source, travel through local pipe lines, and get consumed in cooking in heating fires within a few hours. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Iowa research has shown that "cumulative radon exposure is a significant risk factor for lung cancer in women". "Radon gas is thought to be responsible for 5,000 to 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States". Thus radioactive radon gas, transported to North Texas homes, from Barnett Shale gas wells, almost next door, constitutes a significant ganger to the health of North Texans. Needless to say, this problem is being ignored gas companies, the governments of Texas, and the United States. Interestingly, it is also being ignored by critics of nuclear power who complain about the radiation dangers of nuclear power, but are unconcerned about the radiation associated with natural gas. How much is radon from natural gas effecting the health of Texans? No one knows.
I followed up posts on my father's research on natural radiation exposures associated with the use of fossil fuels, with a post on the anti-nuclear activist, John Gofman. I noted,
Now there are two curious thing about Gofman's anti nuclear crusade. First he based his commitment upon a theory about the effects of radiation on human health, but his focus was on the relatively most insignificent source of man cause radiation in our society, power reactors. Compared to living in a house with a basement, or cooking and heating with natural gas, reactors brought to surounding neighborhoods much less radiation. In the case of useing coal fired power plants, reactors, greatly deminished environmental exposure to radioisotopes, associated with power production. The second curious thing about Gofman's crusade was that Gofman didn't test his theory with data about illnesses in the neighborhood of nuclear facilities. Working in a nuclear facility is associated with with a longer lifespan, and research investigation has not produced evidence that living close to nuclear plant makes it more likely that people to get sick.

Had Gofman been more rational and consistent, he would have included in his anti-radiation campaign, household use of natural gas, and custom of building houses with basements.

But the greatest paradox is that Gofman's anti-nuclear campaign actually contributed to public exposure to radiation, and radioisotopes. Gofman never opposed the use of coal in relation to radiation dangers, despite the presence of radioactive materials in coal fly ash. Fly ash exposed the public to far more radiation that reactors would. Did Gofman, who was by all acounts a brilliant scientist, not see the wider issues? Or was he so caught up in an irrational and Quixotic opposition to nuclear generation to electrity, that he saw, but did not care?
I generally practice a division of labor approach to nuclear blogging. That I note what other bloggers write about, and focus on topics which get less attention in the nuclear blogging community. This is not the case with Energy from Thorium, with which I view Nuclear Green as offering collaboration. Yesterday the New York Times carried quite and extensive story on the presence of radioactive radium in waste water frm the fracking process. And although this was an extensive story, the word "radon" did not occur in the New York Times story even though it has been known for nearly 40 years that natural gas is a source of naturally radioactive radon in the home, and it is known that farcked gas contains radon. The presence of farcked gas wells close to large domestic natural gas markets, means that natural gas with relatively high concentrations of radioactive radon enter homes along with natural gas used for cooking, heating, and water heating. The radon lingers, enters the lungs of home residents including children, and then it produces beta radiation which can cause cancer, If you do not want to read the whole story, Rod Adams offers a summery and comments. This is vintage Rod Adams, and well worth the read. Rod comments,
The health consequences of frequent exposure radium at high enough concentrations are quite different from those of tritium. Here is another question that begs to be asked - if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's charter includes protecting the public from the hazards of radiation emitting materials, why aren't the truckloads of waste water from fracked wells subject to NRC monitoring and reporting?

This is not a new issue for the oil and gas industry. Drillers have known for a very long time that their drill bits and other gear that grinds up natural rock formation on the way to finding pockets of hydrocarbons often becomes contaminated with radioactive materials. They also figured out a long time ago that their profits would be put at risk if they had to meet the stringent requirements imposed by the NRC. Petroleum interests worked carefully to ensure that the NRC has no jurisdiction over what they branded as NORM - naturally occurring radioactive materials - associated with oil and gas drilling operations.

Health physicists understand that living tissue has no way to distinguish alpha, beta and gamma radiation into naturally occurring radiation and radiation produced by a human engineered process like operating a nuclear power plant. Legislators, however, are often motivated by wealth and power, not by science or medicine.
Natural gas pipelines offer a quick and deadly vector for radioactive radon from from fracked Pennsylvania gas wells into millions of homes where natural gas is consumed in the North East. The Michigan State University Extension Service tells us,
Radon gas is thought to be responsible for 5,000 to 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States.

The major sources of radon are: soil that contains radon-releasing material; water and natural gas that has passed through underground areas containing radon; solar-heating systems that use radon-emitting rocks to store heat; granite rock; and uranium or phosphate mine tailings.


Frank Jablonski said...

Charles -

I think this issue is complex. I believe that after researching the LNT hypothesis versus the hormesis hypothesis, Bernard Cohen theorized that perhaps radon might, on an overall basis, i.e., for most (perhaps not for all - - can't remember) exposed people, be protective due to the immune response triggered. Related statements that Mr. Cohen made may have been, in part, tongue-in-cheek - - meant to challenge anti-nuclear thinking through a little bit of shock.

My guess is that triggering a response (through relatively low-level radiation exposures) that is ultimately beneficial, though it may not be what happens for everyone, may well happen for most. This makes the issue complex.

Low level radiation exposures may function (although in a much less planned fashion) like interventions that are undertaken consciously in order to challenge the immune system with the goal of provoking an immune reaction that is ultimately protective.

Vaccines are illustrative. The general consensus of informed scientists is that vaccines are beneficial for most, even though they harmful for some. The MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine, for example, has a risk of adverse reaction of < 1 in 1 million. The risk of serious complications from the measles, by way of contrast, is about 1 in 1000.

Maybe low levels of radiation exposure are the same - - ultimately helpful for most, most of the time, while simultaneously being harmful to some, most of the time.

Though there can be real damage from radioactivity, even low levels, this does not make radiation unique. There is real damage from lots of things, and from low levels. Without real damage sufficient to challenge the immune system, e.g., from a vaccine, there will not be a forceful (and ultimately protective) immune system response. Again, for most.

Colloquially, "what doesn't kill most makes most stronger." But not everyone. Ergo, in my view, the LNT hypothesis, though perhaps based on accurate lab results, may be woefully incomplete and ultimately misleading, if one values general human welfare.

Benefits gained from heightened immune response triggered by the challenge radon poses to the immune system might be the reason that Europeans intentionally exposed themselves to radon by "taking the waters," at spas, under the notion that this would help fight disease. Such exposure amounted to intentionally, though probably unconsciously, seeking out exposure to radioactivity in order to trigger an immune system response that was, ultimately, protective (for many). Maybe it did help fight disease among many of those exposed because it energized the immune system.

I think that highlighting the hypocrisy, as you have done, is valuable. If the people who ostensibly oppose nuclear energy are truly motivated by concerns over radiation exposure, they would oppose coal fired generation 100x as much as they oppose nuclear, and oppose natural gas more than they oppose nuclear. This is obviously not the case.

Radiation is just a handy thing to cite as an issue with nuclear energy, even though higher radiation exposures are associated with other energy sources. It is just something to "say against nuclear."

Most nuclear opponents embrace natural gas because its flexibility can compensate for the intermittence of wind and solar or other intermittent alternatives, which they are desperate to posit as a sufficient alternative to nuclear - - you just need to add some "natural" gas.

In other words, methane (natural gas) is good because it helps fight nuclear. Nothing more is needed. Because it helps "fight nuclear," methane's problems must be ignored or re-classified.

John said...

This is certainly an entertaining one! One can reasonably argue that all the present and future radiation from Fukushima has been more than compensated for by the elimination of oil or gas production which would otherwise have been necessary to produce the electricity provided by the plant. One wonders how much extra radiation can be attributed to the substitution of oil and gas generation for the other nukes taken off line as a precaution!!

Flogistix said...

really !!! this was very interesting. using natural gas would be nice. aside from conserving our natural resources it helps us adapt during climate change. thanks for the information
natural gas heaters


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