Radon and Fracking: A New Study

According to a new study published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the level of Radon in Pennsylvania houses is increasing in areas where hydraulic fracturing is used to produce natural gas from the Marcellus tight shale formation. The peer-reviewed research article, titled Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania, 1989-2013, examines associations of Radon concentrations with underlying geology, sources of water for homes, characteristics of buildings, seasons of the year, weather, and a community's socioeconomic status and type, as well as so-called unconventional natural gas development measures based on numbers of drilled and producing natural gas wells.

Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. It is a radioactive gas which comes from the natural decay of uranium in soil, rock and water and gets into air we breathe. It typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into homes through cracks and other holes in the foundation. Radon from soil gas is the main cause of problems. Sometimes radon enters the home through well water. In a small number of homes, the building material can give off radon too.

The research studied levels of radon in 866,735 buildings from 1989-2013. In the study the researchers found that 42.2% (median of 8.4pCi/L) of the Radon readings were higher than the EPA action level. The research also showed an upward trend from 2004-2012 in all studied counties and higher levels of radon in counties with ≥100 drilled wells. The upward trend beginning time is around the same time that fracking industry began drilling in the state. Between 2005 and 2013, 7469 unconventional natural gas wells were drilled in Pennsylvania.

EPA recommends 4 pCi/L (148 Bq/m3) as the action level at which people should fix their houses. Elevated levels of radon can be reduced to 4 pCi/L more than 95 percent of the time. The following table shows the lifetime Health risk of living with Radon for smokers, nonsmokers and the general population. From the table we can see that an increase in Radon level from 4 to 8 pCi/L will increase the lifetime risk of lung cancer for the general population from 2.3 to 4.5%.

Radon Level (pCi/L)

Lifetime Risk of Lung Cancer Death from Radon Exposure in Homes

Never Smokers

Current Smokers

General Population

20

3.6% (If 1000 people who never smoked were exposed to this level over a lifetime about 36 people could get cancer.)

26.3%

10.5%

10

1.8%

15.0%

5.6%

8

1.5%

12.0%

4.5%

4

0.7%

6.2%

2.3%

2

0.4%

3.2%

1.2%

1.25

0.2%

2.0%

0.7%

0.4

0.1%

0.6%

0.2%

Even though the researchers pointed out in their conclusion that further study is required to directly link fracking to increased radon levels, the findings of their research show that there is a need for radon mitigation actions in the studied areas, and a much better understanding of whether natural gas production may be contributing to these increased levels and, if so, how to mitigate this risk.

About the Authors

Bemnet Alemayehu

Project Scientist, Nuclear program

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