Posted by: Chris Maloney | June 28, 2013

Is Low Dose Radon Good For You?

Radon Test

Radon Test (Photo credit: Birdies100)

If you know anything about Radon gas, you know it lurks in your basement and causes lung cancer. If you didn’t know that, feel free to terrorize yourself on the web with all the bad things Radon can do for you.

But if you don’t want to take that route, might I suggest having a look at taking a Radon spa treatment? That’s right, if you are heading through Central Europe, you can take a train into the center of a mountain and bask in the “naturally occurring low levels of radon gas.”

If that sounds like a sick joke, it’s not. “The radon gas, or ‘Tauern Gold’ as it is now affectionately known, combined with the caves’ perfect humidity and temperature, has been scientifically proven to help restore homeostasis in the body and strengthen the immune system.”  It’s so popular, a five star hotel sits atop the wonderful, healing caves.  Here’s the link to book a visit.

So, being me, I had to find out if there is anything to this Radon gas spa treatment.  It turns out there is.  In Japan, where the reactor has bathed the populace in a healing glow, researchers have found that low dose radiation is good for you.  It also turns out to be good for people in Russia.  I didn’t believe it at first myself, so email me if you’d like the Russian and Japanese abstracts.

I’m having trouble reconciling the idea that we should avoid all Radon exposure unless we want to go to a spa and bath in the stuff.  Is it possible that low-dose radiation does exactly what they say it does?  Could it be that radiation is a bit like bacteria, and when you sterilize out the last little bit you end up worse off than the people who are still dirty/exposed?

Ok, we need some basic data.  Take a standard Pro-Lab Radon test kit (available in the U.S. at any Home Depot or Lowe’s).  The cut-off for the Pro-Lab is at basically zero, and they estimate that the risk of lung cancer is 2/1000 if you have 1.3pCi/L of radon found.  The estimate rises to 7/1000 at 4 pCi/L, and goes up to 36/1000 at 20 pCi/L.  Basically, no level of Radon is safe, and the risk rises the more you get.  So all those Central Europeans, Japanese, and Russians are just poisoning themselves.

But wait, those levels are based on an old EPA study.  We’ve got a new study (really a study of other studies) that pools all data since 1999.  The complete study is online and you can read the whole thing here.  I just want to pause for a moment to thank medline for existing.

Ok, moving on.  The study talks about both “radon lung cancer induction and Adaptive Response reduction in lung cancer.”  That’s right, too much does give cancer, but a little bit might help you avoid cancer.

Where’s the cut-off?  “estimated that for radon levels up to about 400 Bq m−3 there is about a 30% probability that no human lung cancer risk from radon will be experienced and a 20% probability that the risk is below the zero-radon, endogenic spontaneous or perhaps even genetically inheritable lung cancer risk rate.”

In English, I think that means below that cut-off you have a pretty good chance of not getting cancer.  Up to a certain point, the human body responds to radiation by ramping up the immune response.  The article goes into depth about this effect with low-dose radiation for treating cancers.  It also talks about a U.S. study of smokers who got less cancer the more Radon they had in their homes.    I even found a graph that throws the whole Radon gas = cancer model on its head.

So what is the cut-off in Pro-Lab terms?  The authors estimated that 400 Bq was the cut-off, and the web tells me that 1 pCi/L = 37 Bq m−3.  So 400 Bq m−3 = 10.81 pCi/L.  Below that cut-off, the newest studies say you don’t have to worry so much.  As for the previous studies, which make up the Pro-Lab warning sheet?  The newest study says:  “EPA (2003) estimates of human lung cancer deaths from radon are most likely significantly excessive. The assumption of linearity of risk, by the Linear No-Threshold Model, with increasing radon exposure is invalid.”

English: Lung cancer mortality rates corrected...

English: Lung cancer mortality rates corrected for smoking compared with mean home radon levels by U.S. county and comparison with BEIR IV linear model. Observed mortality risk is 1.00 at 1.7 pCi/liter, the average U.S. residential radon level. Adapted from Cohen (Cohen BL. Test of the linear no-threshold theory of radiation carcinogenesis in the low dose, low dose rate region. Health Phys 68:157-174 (1995).). 5 pCi/l ~ 200 Bq/m3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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