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No. 17 – Radon and Radiation Risk Perceptions

February 16, 2011

Insight No. 15 attributed the public’s apathy to radon, in part, as a result of the fact that radon is invisible and odorless. Therefore, our five senses do not give us a signal to warn us of any danger due to radon. Without this sense of danger, it is hard for the public to get concerned for radon. As noted by a health physicist, “regardless of what the computer models say, people can look around and see there is no epidemic of unexplained lung cancers that might be caused by radon.” He concludes therefore, that the public’s apathy might just be an exercise in some old fashioned common sense. While this observation may be true for radon in homes, it does not seem to apply to other sources of radiation, such as nuclear power plants and radioactive wastes. The public is far from apathetic about radiation exposures that “may” occur from these man-made sources.

Health physicists, in general, seem to share the same perceptions of radon and other radiation risks as the public. Health physicists, at the Scottsdale meeting of the Health Physics Society, voted that they believe the risks from radon were less than 1,000 lung cancer deaths a year in the U.S. Apparently, health physicists also do not believe the models which predict an annual lung cancer incidence of 14,000 due to radon. An industry colleague stated that the use of the linear, no-threshold model has led to huge misrepresentations of the real radon risk to the public.

At the same time, health physicists usually agree that the radiation energy deposited in our bodies from alpha emissions from radon decay products far exceeds the energy deposition from other sources of radiation exposure to an average person. Average radon exposures could result in a radiation absorbed dose of 1–2 mGy/yr. in bronchial tissues. In contrast, the radiation dose to average radiation workers is often in the order of 0.05 to 0.5 mGy/yr. For example, at the NIH over 5,000 radiation workers receive an average annual dose of less than 0.05 mGy. Recently, the NIH spent about $5 million a year to achieve this dose with a radiation safety staff of about 50 people. If this is typical of radiation programs in medical and research facilities in the U.S., then large numbers of health physicists are engaged in expensive programs to protect workers at absorbed doses far below what these same workers may get from radon in their homes.

While health physicists appear not to believe in radon risks, we seem to be greatly concerned for radiation risks to workers where the radiation doses may be lower. Apparently, we agree with the public perception that man-made radiation is more dangerous, because that is where we put most of our efforts. What is wrong with this picture?

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