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Does fracking release radon and cause lung cancer?

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In recent years, the United States have experienced the fracking revolution. The rock is hydraulically fractured by a liquid composed of water, sand, and chemicals. One can obtain cheap fossil fuels – mostly shale oil and gas – from geological layers that didn't look like nice fossil fuel reservoirs before.

Timelapse of drilling and fracking a well.

People can get the organic compounds which are diluted in the rock. As the video above shows, it takes less than 2 minutes to create the well, establish the company, do the paperwork, and start to make profits. America has become nearly energy independent, its trade deficit decreased, and several TRF American readers are happy about their investments into fracking. But just like the shale oil or shale gas is released from the rock as if it were a sponge, so can some other, less desirable elements and compounds.

What about radon?

In Czechia, we – at least the well-informed ones among us – know something about radon because the Czech radon causes the highest number of deaths per year and per 1 million people among the world's nations. How does it happen?

Well, radon is released in radioactive decays of elements such as radium, uranium, and thorium. Most directly and typically, radon-222 – which is a gas and the number indicates its most stable isotope – is created when a radium-226 nucleus decays. This radium itself comes from the decay of uranium-238.

As you know, the history of uranium and radium is tightly connected with Bohemia, i.e. the Czech lands.

In Northwestern Bohemia, especially around Jáchymov (German: Joachimsthal) which is the region of the Ore Mountains (Krušné hory, Erzegebirge), there are uranium mines (and also lots of coal mines not discussed here: it became a nearly lunar landscape at one point but the region has almost perfectly recovered by now). Uranium is good for nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs but at the end of the 19th century, there weren't any. So uranium was pretty much useless. But people knew about it because it – more precisely pitchblende – was an almost worthless byproduct of silver mining. We didn't have much gold in Czechia but yes, we did have some silver.


I am oversimplifying. Uranium wasn't quite useless and there was a uranium dye factory in Northwestern Bohemia; dyes and stains could be made of this ore. This factory sent some pitchblende to Marie and Pierre Curie for free.

Well, let me review some previous history. In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays. Less than a year later, Henri Becquerel showed that natural radiation exists, too – in pitchblende. Marie and Pierre Curie were sent those Bohemian pitchblende samples for free and in 1898, Madam Curie isolated radium and later polonium from the pitchblende samples.

In 1899, Curies did notice some radioactive gas. But only in 1900, Friedrich Ernst Dorn in Halle saw the same thing and focused on it sufficiently so that he gave a name to the radioactive gas. It was called "Ra Em", "radium emanation". Rutherford and Debierne similarly found "thorium emanation" and "actinium emanation", respectively.

In 1910, Robert Whytlaw-Gray finally isolated radon, the heaviest gas (which belongs to the noble/inert gas family started by helium). The three "emanations" were renamed radon, thoron, actinon (Rn, Tn, An) before it was appreciated that they were isotopes of the same radon (222, 220, 219).

OK, back to the real world. We had uranium mines in Bohemia – enemies of socialism were sent to these factories to work after the war. Around Jáchymov, people were known to die of lung cancer and similar things. So Czechia was the place where the first investigation of the health effects of radon took place.

Radon is released by uranium etc. beneath the soil, penetrates through the air and water in the soil, and gets to the houses. People living in the basements – and sometimes other apartments on the boundary of the house – are most vulnerable. Radon is accumulating in the apartment, especially if you don't open the windows sufficiently frequently (when it comes to radon, windows are more important for your health than apples).

Every year, about 900 Czechs die of lung cancer caused by radon; radon is the #2 cause of lung cancer in the world after #1 smoking. Czechs may look at detailed radon maps: the dark red regions are most dangerous. In the U.S. whose population is about 30 times larger, there are slightly over 20,000 radon-related deaths every year – it would be about 30,000 if the "intensity" of the risk were the same as it is in Czechia.

Now, is the number of 20,000 radon-caused deaths in the U.S. going to change? Media just discussed a paper

Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania, 1989–2013
by Joan Casey and 6 co-authors of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that claims evidence – lots of observed temporal and spatial correlations – that the rapidly increased radon in Pennsylvania since 2004 seems to be linked to fracking.

I haven't studied and memorized all the relevant numbers but the possible implications are clear. You should be careful about radon if fracking is going on near your village. This is a problem that may be fixed, however: every house may be isolated against the radon coming from the soil.

If the problem could not be fixed, it could be a major problem, indeed. For example, if the radon-caused lung cancer rate doubled because of fracking in the U.S., there would be 20,000 extra deaths caused by the fracking-released radon. With $1 million per human life, you could say that this would be an extra liability of $20 billion per year and that's significant in comparison with the profits of the U.S. fracking industry.

At the end, I think that all those problems have a solution. But you may want to be ahead of time. It's sort of common sense that if the fracking turns the rock to a "sponge" for natural gas, it turns it to a "sponge" for bad things such as radon, too. Gases like random from much greater volumes of the rock may make it to the surface – and into your house.

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snail feedback (28) :

reader olga biriukova said...

super good

reader Brett_Bellmore said...

Of course, given the evidence for radiation hormesis,it's possible that, in much of the world, radon from fracking would qualify as a positive externality.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I can't believe that you actually believe this stuff because it's so self-evidently indefensible.

In Czechia, those 900 people who die of radon are not a negligible portion of the deaths. About 100,000 people die every year, so it's 1%. This is the average over the territory. In the bad radon regions, the percentage of deaths due to radon is much higher - which is why the national estimates may be done at all.

Take a town where the radon deaths are substantial, like 10% of the deaths. Do you suggest that the "good" effects of radon will also be as high as 10% over there? They should be as easily seen as the lung cancer, should't they? It doesn't seem to be the case.

And how is the radon supposed to help, anyway? You know that it's gas, right? So it doesn't really get inside the body. It stays on the surface in the atmosphere - so it touches the skin and other places of the contact with the air. The interior of the lungs is complicated and has atmosphere in it, so it's most affected.

How does the clearly negative, lung-cancer-causing effect become good for the skin or other parts where the radon acts? There is no conceivable mechanism. Moreover, radiation hormesis has to assume some nonlinear profile of the effect of the radon, and you really need some small amounts to have a remote chance to claim that the effect is beneficial.

But the concentrations of radon are already small in general.

To summarize, I think that the evidence makes it clear that the effect of radon on health is almost exactly linear at the realistic concentrations, it only causes lung cancer, and that's a negative thing. It's a matter of common sense. Radiation hormesis may exists as a matter of principle but if it does in this case, it seems rather clear that its magnitude is vastly smaller than the lung cancer effect.

reader Brett_Bellmore said...

No, I suggest that most of the world has lower radiation levels than Czechia. And the general mechanism for hormesis is well established: Irritant triggers repair mechanism, which over-compensates.

Whether additional radiation is harmful or beneficial appears to be dependent on how much is already present.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Brett, you are talking about a hypothetical effect that radon from fracking has on the people. It only has a local effect, doesn't it?

At the fracking sites in Pennsylvania, the amount of radon is *higher* than the average Czech concentration. This is really the point. You are creating your own versions of Jáchymov, in the worst cases - and you seem to be claiming that it is healthy to live in cities like Jáchymov. I am convinced it is totally dumb.

reader Ralph Hartley said...

Radon has a half life of only 3.8 days.

Fracking makes the shale porous, but that is usually over a kilometre from the surface. It would take much too long to diffuse all the way up to someones basement. I would expect radon to escape through the well itself along with the hydrocarbons, and least sometimes be released into the atmosphere. I'd guess that's what they are talking about.

An atom of radon in outside air is much less harmful than one inside a house, since it is much less likely to be inhaled before it decays.

reader Ralph Hartley said...

OK. The paper is about indoor radon. I'm still not sure I buy it though.

reader MikeNov said...

Bernard L. Cohen, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh,
compared radon exposure and lung cancer rates in 1,729 counties covering
90 percent of the U.S. population. His study in the 1990s found far
fewer cases of lung cancer in those counties with the highest amounts of
radon -- a correlation that could not be explained by smoking rates.

reader davideisenstadt said...

I would take the radon issue more serious;ly if people in the US didn't have the habit of inviting radon emitting products into their homes...through the use of granite countertops. Think of the children!

reader Luboš Motl said...

Threatening radon is *always* indoor.

reader Luboš Motl said...

People do all kinds of crazy things - these "cures" were popular exactly one century ago - but it doesn't always kill.

The exposure is simply linear so if one spends an hour in this environment, it's just like 500 hours or 20 extra days of exposure in within-EPA-limits environment, which is rather negligible.

It would probably be lethal to live there for a year, however.

reader Rehbock said...

If this study seems plausible it may seriously affect the frackers whether or not correct. Fracking is implicated in earthquakes and ground water contamination in the public mind already. When our public is told that it is radioactive they lose that mind completely I believe.

reader lukelea said...

Dear Lubos, Slightly off topic, but I am interested in the questions of how dangerous low levels of naturally occurring radiation really are, what "low" means in this context, and how the radon problem fits in. Thus, for example, I have read on several occasions that Denver, Colorado has higher levels of background radiation issuing from the earth, by a factor of 2 compared to some other places in the East, but no higher cancer rates. I've even seen reports that the number of cancer deaths in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Chernobyl have been vastly exaggerated in the popular press, but don't know what to believe.

reader lukelea said...

I believe fracking takes place far below groundwater in most cases.

reader Les Johnson said...

There is very little chance that fracturing increases radon gas. Fracturing occurs 2000 meters below surface, protected by 3 to 6 strings of steel casing, the casing themselves surrounded by cement.

Fractures themselves also stay in zone. They will not get fractures out of zone, let alone to surface.

Reasons fractures stay in zone:

1. Energy companies use seismic and other tools to measure fractures. Even a simple log-log plot of net pressure will show whether the fracture is in zone or not.

2. The reason companies measure fractures, is that it is NOT ECONOMICAL to fracture out of the zone. If one of the measurements show the fracture going out zone, the job is terminated. BECAUSE YOU ARE SPENDING MONEY WITH NO INCREASING PRODUCTION.

3. The same geological barriers that trap the oil and gas, also act as barriers to fracture propagation. The fracture usually stop at these barriers.

4. Simple arithmetic. Fractures propagate in radial directions from the well bore. Assuming a barrier below, but none above, gives a 1/2 penny shaped fracture with a volume of over 6000 m3. (2000 meters x 1 mm fracture). This is larger than the largest fracture job ever pumped. And this is with an impossibly small 1 mm fracture. Sand will not be able to a fracture this small. The job would pressure out.

5. Most radon gas is from igneous rock, especially granite. Most oil and gas production is from sedimentary rocks.

6. The fracture is a pressure SINK. That means that radon above the fracture (and below your house) will migrate towards the sink.

Fracturing will not increase radon gas, period.

reader Uncle Al said...

Radiation exposure making money is hormesis. Ban private ownership of radiation detectors (stiff fine and/or imprisonment). Federally license corporate ownership with mandated paid Federal data review before release. Log all users for later prosecution. Lone wolf terrorists crying "science!" and threatening America must be expunged.

reader Rehbock said...

I don't know whether you meant to be serious. Some people do fear granite but the radon exposure is minimal. There are many dead found under granite but that correlation is not causal.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Luke, I think that the general story is simple. Natural radiation is all around us.

It is increasing the rate of cancer by something like 50% - most cancers have nothing to do with radiation, and even most of those have nothing to do with the environment of any kind.

Radiation has many types and nuclear and particle physics has lots of fun studying the details. But from the health perspective, all radiation is the same. It is something that produces high-energy particles that ionize atoms, and cripple small pieces of the DNA.

So for all practical purposes, one should only count how many such radiation-induced mutations occur per unit time or per life, and so on. One may count "apples and oranges" together.

There are still "biological" differences between different radioactive substances - their differences manifest themselves as differences which organs they get into, and how long they stay there.

Radon is the most important radioactive gas - the only major radioactive element that is naturally occurring as gas at normal temperatures and pressure. So it can get wherever the air can get, and the lungs are most affected because there's a lot of surface area inside your lungs.

There is a certain number of radon atoms per unit volume in the average environments - I don't know the number, I would have to look it up, but it doesn't really matter - and this number for Czechia translates to the fact that 1% of the deaths are caused by radon.

If the average concentration of radon in someone's life is N times larger than that, he will have N percent chance of dying of lung cancer caused by radon. It's a simple linear relationship, I believe.

Cancer deaths in Chernobyl have surely been wildly exaggerated by some. In Hiroshima, most of the people really died because of the brute force mechanical energy and heat, not due to some invisible effects of radiation. But it's still true that radiation is harmful.

Denver, Colorado has a high attitude and the increased cancer risk isn't detected. But it's also plausible that the population has already been naturally selected at such places, and most people who live in Denver (or similar places exposed to cosmic rays etc.) are more "immune" against certain threats. I wrote about a similar "evolution in real time" in a Czech city here:

To some extent, bodies may find the mutated cell and suppress it, and some bodies - human or otherwise - can do it more efficiently than others, and so on.

I don't know the numbers. Both cosmic rays - which are higher in Denver - and the radiation from the Earth's rock are comparably important for the cancer rates. It's also plausible that Denver has a lower level of the radiation from the bottom. There are many uncertain data here.

But I am confident that if you talk about a fixed generic person and you try to expose him or her to higher levels of radiation, his expected lifetime will shorten.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Well, I think that we are very far from this hysteria. Look at and find radon meters. They don't sell at all. And they're pretty useful - I am thinking about buying such a thing, just for the curiosity.

reader tmtisfree said...

Here is a paper about radon therapy, in US and Europe:

reader Rehbock said...

Yes. Of course. But I will not underestimate fear of nuclear by the ignorant in this country. Our locals practically brought out the pitchforks when an engineer tried to operate a small cyclotron to make radioisotopes for PET scans. We are cyclotron free zone :-)

reader Les Johnson said...

Addendum: Radon has a 1/2 life of 3.8 days. That means any radon in your house, has to originate a few meters from the house. It takes days for gas to migrate through porous material. Any radon from the well will have turned to lead long before it can reach your house.

reader TomVonk said...

I do not believe that this kind of studies has much quantitative sense.
Everybody who spent some time to read at least one (I did) is apalled with the scientific quality or rather lack of it.
For instance I belive that there are some 6 000 people dying from lung cancer in CR. This number can be verified and considered accurate.
Now within this number, 900 or some 10% are supposed to die from radon.
I would like to see the "study" finding this house number and ask among others :
- how many smokers among the 900 ?
- how long did the 900 live in a region with a high radon concentration and when was the radon concentration measured ?
- where did they exactly live ? - radon is heavy so the probability it gets to 8th story is lower than ground stage.
- what was their exposure to fine particles (there is a "study" saying that the fine particles are the second most important factor in lung cancer) ?
- what was their exposure to other carcinogenous factors ?
- what was their heredity ?
Etc, I could go on.
The point being is that if you ask a serious doctor (my father was lung specialist), he will tell you that nobody knows what CAUSED this or that particular cancer.
In reality there is a multitude of internal (like heredity) and external (like food) factors which, each one, modify the PROBABILITY of a cancer development (some factors are increasing this probability and some are decreasing it).
But once the cancer appears or doesn't appear, nobody knows why.
A non smoker, living in a radon free non city/industrial region dying of lung cancer. Why ? Well ... bad luck.
That's why cancer is a difficult medical research subject and we can not cure it (yet).
So yes, radioactivity is one among thousands of cancer probability increasing factors so that having less is better than having more.
This belongs to this kind of qualitatively obvious statements like 'To avoid accidents, it is better not to climb on Himalaya than to do it".
But I don't believe one second the quantitative propaganda - there can be 900 people dying because of radon but there can also be 90. Or whatever number one likes.
Everybody can only be sure of one thing - he will die of some observable illness and when he does, in many cases (especially cancer) nobody will know what exactly caused it first place.

reader Eclectikus said...

It seems radon is actively considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency, at least they have "A Citizen's Guide to Radon":

Also, Amazon has a range of radon detectors, even I have a found a Radon mitigation fan for 150 bucks (FanTech HP175 4" Radon Mitigation Fan), so there are already some awareness indeed.

reader davideisenstadt said...

heh heh

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Tom, the probability that a unit of exposure to radon creates lung cancer - usually with a 5-year delay - has been repeatedly measured on uranium miners, see e.g.

reader Gary Ehlenberger said...

I had high radon as measured with a digital Radon meter and also a canister. Reduced the level by factor of 10 by installing a fan in the crawl space below the home.
Also fracking fluids have nasty chemicals

reader Honza said...

Lubos, I do not think that the number of 20,000 deaths on it's own would make much of a splash. There is dying some 30,000 to 40,000 people yearly in US during traffic accidents, and some 200,000 of lung cancer, (600,000 cancer death total), flue associated death 3,000 to 49,000 per year...
The important information is that you can tie it to the fuel production and therefor the big money. That makes ti newsworthy. ;-) That woudl make it newsworthy even if increase in number of deaths is 20!