The Science of Radon

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Definition of Radon

Radon gas, which is similar to carbon-14 gas, is a natural element. It is created during the breakdown of uranium-238, which has an interesting decay sequence (for more information about radioactivity and decay sequences, check out How Nuclear Radiation Works):

  1. Start with a uranium-238 atom. It has 92 protons and 146 neutrons. It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. When it decays, it emits an alpha particle and transforms into a thorium-234 atom.
  2. A thorium-234 atom has 90 protons and 144 neutrons. It has a half-life of 24.5 days. When it decays, it emits a beta particle and a gamma ray, creating a protactinium-234 atom.
  3. A protactinium-234 atom has 91 protons and 143 neutrons. It has a half-life of 269,000 years. When it decays, it emits a beta particle and a gamma ray, resulting in a thorium-230 atom.
  4. A thorium-230 atom has 90 protons and 140 neutrons. It has a half-life of 83,000 years. When it decays, it emits an alpha particle and a gamma ray, creating a radium-226 atom.
  5. A radium-226 atom has 88 protons and 138 neutrons. It has a half-life of 1,590 years. When it decays, it emits an alpha particle and a gamma ray, creating a radon-222 atom.

The radon atom is a gas and has a half-life of only 3.825 days. The natural nuclear decay of uranium-238 leads to accumulations of radon atoms, which is how radon gas is produced. This means that radon gas concentrations are higher in areas where uranium is abundant in the soil. For the full sequence, see below:

  1. Radon-222, with a half-life of 3.825 days, emits an alpha particle to become polonium-218.
  2. Polonium-218, with a half-life of 3.05 minutes, emits an alpha particle to become lead-214.
  3. Lead-214, with a half-life of 26.8 minutes, emits a beta particle and a gamma ray to become bismuth-214.
  4. Bismuth-214, with a half-life of 19.7 minutes, emits either an alpha particle or a beta particle and a gamma ray to become either thallium-210 or polonium-214.
  5. Polonium-214, with a half-life of 150 microseconds, emits an alpha particle to become thallium-210.
  6. Thallium-210, with a half-life of 1.32 minutes, emits a beta particle to become lead-210.
  7. Lead-210, with a half-life of 22 years, emits a beta particle and a gamma ray to become bismuth-210.
  8. Bismuth-210, with a half-life of five days, emits a beta particle to become polonium-210.
  9. Polonium-210, with a half-life of 138 days, emits an alpha particle and a gamma ray to become lead-206.
  10. Lead-206 is a stable isotope of lead.

FAQ

1. What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It is formed when uranium in soil and rocks begins to decay.

2. Is radon dangerous?

Yes, radon is dangerous. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. Radon exposure can also cause other respiratory problems.

3. How does radon enter homes?

Radon can enter homes through cracks in walls and foundations, gaps around pipes, and through the soil beneath the home. It can also enter through well water.

4. Can radon be detected?

Yes, radon can be detected with a simple test. Radon test kits can be purchased online or at hardware stores. Professional radon testing is also available.

5. How much radon is considered safe?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends taking action to reduce radon levels if they are at or above 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air.

6. How can radon levels be reduced?

Radon levels can be reduced through a process called radon mitigation. This typically involves sealing cracks in walls and foundations and installing a ventilation system to remove radon from the home.

7. Is radon more common in certain regions?

Yes, radon levels can vary depending on the geology of the area. However, radon can be found in homes all across the United States.

8. Can new homes have radon?

Yes, new homes can have radon. Radon can enter through the soil beneath the home, so even newly constructed homes can be at risk.

9. Can radon be found in schools and workplaces?

Yes, radon can be found in schools and workplaces. It is important to test these buildings for radon and take measures to reduce levels if necessary.

10. Can air purifiers remove radon?

No, air purifiers cannot remove radon. Radon is a gas that requires specialized equipment to remove.

11. Can smoking increase the risk of radon exposure?

Yes, smoking can increase the risk of radon exposure. Smoking and radon exposure together can greatly increase the risk of lung cancer.

12. Who should test their home for radon?

Everyone should test their home for radon. Radon can be found in homes of all ages and in all parts of the country. Testing is the only way to know if your home has high levels of radon.

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