Shale exploration in Pennsylvania linked to high levels of radioactive radon

Radioactive, keyboard
Source: DollarPhotoClub

According to researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the levels of carcinogenic gas, radon, in Pennsylvania homes are higher than those in other areas of the state, which may indicate that the increased level of the gas is linked to shale gas exploration in the area.

Radon is a colourless, odourless radioactive gas which is the second biggest cause of lung cancer in the U.S., after smoking. According to the EPA, there are about 21,000 radon-related lung cancers per year in the U.S.

The authors of the report entitled “Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania, 1989–2013” analysed radon readings in some 860,000 buildings from 1989 to 2013 – usually taken when the properties changed owners. They found that levels of the radioactive gas in rural and suburban homes, near where shale wells were more likely to be located, were 39 times higher than those measured in urban properties. They also found that buildings using well water had a 21 per cent higher concentration of radon than those served by municipal water systems.

What was significant, was the fact that the levels of radon in properties began to increase round about the time shale started to be explored in the state.

“We evaluated associations of radon concentrations with geology, water source, building characteristics, season, weather, community socioeconomic status, community type and unconventional natural gas development measures based on drilled and producing wells,” the researchers wrote in their study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“Between 2005-2013, 7,469 unconventional wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. Basement radon concentrations fluctuated between 1987-2003, but began an upward trend from 2004-2012 in all county categories,” they wrote.

Radon levels were higher in homes near where there were more of shale gas wells.

What’s more, nearly 300,000 homes – 42 percent of the buildings that were tested – had a first basement test result that exceeded the EPA action level of over 4 picocuries per litre. In other words, all these properties had levels of radon high enough to warrant action.

“One plausible explanation for elevated radon levels in people’s homes is the development of thousands of unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years,” says study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “These findings worry us.”

The study’s first author, Joan A. Casey, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley and San Francisco, believes that the results of the research are directly linked with shale related activities. “By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface,” Casey says. “Now there are a lot of potential ways that fracking may be distributing and spreading radon.”

Other scientists also reacted to the study’s findings with concern. “The industry needs to abandon this excuse it hides behind which is, ‘we’ve been doing this for 65 years, why are you worried’?” Dr. Bernard Goldstein, former dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and a former Environmental Protection Agency official told NBC News.

“That’s simply wrong. This ought to be treated as if it’s something, like nanotechnology, which is a new thing that needs to be done carefully,” he added.

“Something everyone should be doing is to measure their radon and to cut down on the exposure to radon, to use radon remediation techniques; some of them as simple as putting a pipe in the basement all the way up to the ceiling so it exchanges the radon inside for the clean air outside,” Goldstein said.

Not everybody, however, is convinced of the direct link between shale wells and increased radon levels in the homes. Radon as a gas is quite ubiquitous and can occur naturally. The authors of the study themselves admit that the reason they found higher concentration of the gas in human dwellings might be down to the fact that modern houses are better insulated, potentially trapping radon that gets inside and leading to increased indoor radon levels.

Speaking to the portal State Impact, Kevin Stewart, Director of Environmental Health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said the group supports policies to protect air and water during natural gas production, but he questioned the study’s assertion that higher radon levels could be traced to the start of the fracking boom.

Since the study reported that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher radon concentration than those using municipal systems averaged over the whole study period – which began more than a decade before Pennsylvania’s fracking boom – it does not necessarily indicate a link between fracking and radon, Stewart said.

“These differences in the data were observed going back to the 1980s, long before the expansion of unconventional extraction,” he said.

Rob Jackson, on the other hand, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, and who was not involved in the study, pointed to the fact that radon levels started increasing well before unconventional drilling ramped up, and that the strongest rise is noted in the Reading area which has no gas wells.

“We’ll need more work to understand those trends,” he said.

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