Radon — #9 In "Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries" Series

This is the second part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow for the next part, which will focus on silica.

9. Radon

Fossil Fuel Use: Natural Gas

toxic oilRadon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas which causes lung cancer. It is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the US after cigarette smoking. About 20,000 people per year die from lung cancer attributed to radon exposure according to the National Cancer Institute. Further, there is no known threshold below which radon exposures carries no risk.

Radon exposure can come from a variety of natural sources. However, the newly-developed fossil fuel extraction methods collectively known as “fracking” (natural gas) represents a significant new and increased source of radon exposure to millions of citizens. Radon is released into local groundwater and air during fracking operations. It also travels through pipelines to the point of use — be it a power plant or a home kitchen.

The science behind radon release and exposure is complex but explained well here by Christopher Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, who warns that Radon dangers from fracking “have not been addressed properly (or at all) by the environmental impact statements published by the operators, or by the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA.”

The proliferation of fracking in the US has raised increased concern that the long-term public health consequences of radon exposure are being ignored in favor of the perceivied short-term economic advantage of using fracked gas. In New York City, for example, Mayor Bloomberg has promoted the increased use of newly fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region fields in Pennsylvania: the Spectra Pipeline, for example, is a massive new gas pipeline which, on November 1, went on-line and is now transporting up to 800 million cubic feet of fracked gas into the center of Manhattan every day.

The industry (and NYC Mayor Bloomberg) touts the development of fracking as an achievement for “clean energy” and American energy “independence.” The laws of chemistry and biology, however, tend to ignore patriotic soundbites, and Mayor Bloomberg is not doing New Yorkers any favors from importing newly fracked gas from Pennsylvania: the radon levels from wells in the Marcellus Shale are significantly higher than elsewhere in the US. This fact, combined with the short travel distance to end use in New York means that citizens throughout the most populated city in the US will now be exposed to more amounts of this highly carcinogenic gas than ever before — in their homes, at work, in schools and, yards above the highly pressurized pipelines running throughout the not-so-invulnerable New York City underground power grid (remember Sandy?), on the very streets of Manhattan.

“City and state leaders have failed to think through the consequences of promoting radon-laced natural gas, and they failed to heed clear warning signs that gas from Pennsylvania represents a major threat to the public health of New Yorkers,” said Albert Appleton, former commission of the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection and senior fellow at the Cooper Union Institute of Sustainable Design.

Another industry expert, Marvin Resnikoff, a PhD physicist and international radioactive waste consultant, put it more succinctly. Using fracked gas from Marcellus, he said, will directly lead to thousands of new cases of lung cancer in New York.

Long-term studies from diverse science, research, and public health organizations, such as this one from the Federal Office of Public Health, provide evidence to take these warnings seriously. Many of these studies provide evidence that indoor radon causes a significant number of lung cancer cases in the general population.

Dr. Resnikoff cited the the lack of attention, however, given to radon dangers by the New York State Department of Conservation’s Environmental Impact Statement on the use of Marcellus Shale fracked gas. “In the entire 1400 page statement there is only one sentence containing the word “radon” and no consideration of this significant public health hazard.” Read his full report here.

Such government apathy runs contrary to the findings by the world’s leading public health and science organizations who have published very clear warnings. Organizations such as the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute, all articulate a definitive, well-established connection between radon and lung cancer.

…and yet, like the tobacco industry in years past, today’s fossil fuel industry denies the science. Thus, a spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry trade group, recently disputed the findings of the world scientific community about the dangers of radon: “Their claims are unsupported by facts and science,” says MSC spokesman Travis Windle.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition’s website, it should be noted, makes no mention of the bloody lungs and painful bone metastases which, eventually, occur in end-stage lung cancer resulting from radon. Instead, it refers to the promise of “clean, job-creating American natural gas.” (Yes, the website actually says “clean.”)

Note From The Author

There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.

History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.

In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.

Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.

It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.

The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.

This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.

Don Lieber
New York City
November 2013

Image Credit: fossil fuel risk via Shutterstock

Stay tuned for the remaining 8 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries.

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