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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
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.