You know something’s amiss when you set off the radiation alarms while walking in to the nuclear power plant.
Back in the 16th century, lung disease was a problem in a Bohemian town called Joachimsthal, meaning “St. Joachim’s Valley” in German. There wasn’t much there aside from the mines, but it’s one of those out-of-the-way places that’s had a surprisingly outsized historical impact. For instance, the silver coins minted there were called “Joachimsthalers,” which understandably got shortened to “thalers.” Given a few centuries to marinate, this became “dollar.”
It’s a weirdly influential town in that kind of way. The other medieval mineralogist, Georgius Agricola, also spent some time there studying. Hundreds of years later, so did J. Robert Oppenheimer, AKA “The Father Of The Nuclear Bomb.” (Or as I like to call him, Atom Daddy.) The Nazis appear to have had a sickening interest in the place, and for a time, there was fear that they were using uranium from the mine to build their own atomic bomb.
That is what the Soviets did with the place after Joseph Stalin negotiated the rights to the place. Political prisoners dug uranium out of the dirt there until 1960.
Additionally, Joachimsthal is part of Czechia now, and its name has changed. Please forgive me, but I just couldn’t say its new name in audio format: Jáchymov.
I checked multiple independent sources for the correct pronunciation. The J takes on a Y sound, but even so.
I apologize to the good irradiated people of Jáchymov for my anglocentric immaturity.
In researching the Watras incident, I came upon this news story. I didn’t end up using anything from it, but I love the lede, which is just a huge swing and a miss: “If Stanley Watras’ home were a uranium mine, it would have been closed long ago.”
I get it. And it’s kind of clever and cute, but it’s overruled by its own clunky absurdity. If Stanley Watras’ home were a uranium mine, I would have many more questions before thinking about Health & Safety.
One of the coolest things I stumbled upon but didn’t get a chance to include: It’s possible that monitoring radon could be a tool for predicting earthquakes. The idea is that tectonic plates that are about to slip are likely to suddenly emit lots of radon gas.
Strangely, it doesn’t appear that much research has gone into this beyond the preliminary stage. Geologists, what’s the word?
Radon is one of the noble gases; thus, its valence shell is full and it’s nearly entirely unreactive. But that doesn’t make it safe. Quite the opposite, actually. While radon hangs on to its electrons tightly, it’s prone to spontaneously ejecting bits of its nucleus as alpha radiation — and as we’ve recently learned, that stuff can kill you.
So if radon is noble, it’s distinctly a Prince-of-Denmark kind of nobility — a fittingly dramatic way to cap off period 6 and Poisoner’s Corridor.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’ll pluck radon from thin air.
Even among the weird radioactive elements near the bottom of the periodic table, radon stands out in its oddness. Many of the upcoming elements are laboratory curiosities, often existing only for brief moments in time, with no place in the natural world. Some of them have changed the course of history, but only after humanity found ways to exploit them.
Conversely, radon is everywhere on Earth, and it always has been. In minuscule amounts, granted, but the entire time, it’s been exercising influence over us and all known life from the very beginning.
We really started from the bottom: as single-celled prokaryotes hovering near hydrothermal vents on the sea floor. Now we here: trillions of cells acting in concert to metabolize, locomote, and wear every single chain, even when we’re in the house.
Every step of that journey was driven by genetic mutation — slight changes to our DNA, the blueprints to our bodies. Sometimes these cause disabilities, or cancers, but once in a great while, that slight tweak to its DNA will benefit an organism, making it more likely to survive and pass that DNA down to the next generation. The accumulation and development of these changes over time is what we call “evolution.”1
When the subject comes up, most of the focus tends to be on the changes. That makes sense, that’s where all the interesting stuff happens, the results of those genetic mutations. But the causes of those mutations are just as critical.
Mutations can occur spontaneously, through sexual reproduction or errors in DNA replication, but if that were the only thing driving evolution, the process would be even slower than it already is.
Plenty of chemicals can have an effect on DNA molecules when ingested, from cadmium to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. But mutagens aren’t only chemical in nature. Bacteria and viruses can alter DNA, and so can ultraviolet light, x-rays, and even cosmic rays from distant stars. You may have noticed those last three are all types of radiation, and the alpha radiation emitted by radon is quite capable of doing the same thing.2
Whenever polonium decays into lead, bismuth, thallium, etc., that all tends to happen in one place. Those elements are usually solids, so they’re not exactly mobile. But when an unstable atom decays into radon, it’s freed from its earthly shackles and can float off into the atmosphere.
Around sea level, there’s pretty reliably about 2,500 atoms of radon per cubic inch. That’s out of the many quintillions of atoms occupying that cubic inch — it’s an infinitesimal amount of radon that we’re talking about, but it is a pretty constant level and it’s pretty well dispersed around the globe.3 4 5
The theory proposes that this omnipresence has made radon one of the most reliable and consistent mutagens on Earth, wielding only minuscule influence over DNA, but doing so constantly for billions of years.6
It’s worth noting that this isn’t a “good” thing. Mutations can be as harmful to an organism as they can be helpful. And on the timescale of a human life, as opposed to the speed at which evolution operates, radon’s effects can be fatal. In this way, humanity was familiar with the effects of radon for centuries before discovering radon itself.
Remember Paracelsus, the 16th-century doctor slash philosopher slash alchemist who taught us that “the dose makes the poison”? In 1537, he noted the incredibly high occurrence of “Schneeberger Lung Disease” among local miners. This was different from any of the myriad other lung diseases plaguing miners, especially with its high mortality rate and frequent occurrence among young miners, rather than those who had been working the mines for decades.7 8 9
Paracelsus figured this had something to do with the bad quality of the air in the mines, possibly because of thick dust. He was on the right track, but not quite correct. This disease was lung cancer, and a main cause was the presence of radon gas. Workers at the time were mining silver; unbeknownst to them, those veins were also rich in uranium, which eventually decays into radon.10
Radon would remain unknown until the turn of the twentieth century, and even its discovery was unusual compared to its elemental neighbors.
Whereas polonium, actinium, and radium were found by element hunters sifting through highly radioactive ores, nobody really went looking for radon. And when it finally was found, no one thought it was an element!
The Curies had figured out that radium was giving off some kind of gas, and that said gas remained radioactive for long periods of time. Ernest Rutherford found the same thing while studying thorium. He referred to the gas as “thorium emanations.” It looked a lot like a new element, and behaved like one, too… but these were the pioneering days of radioactive science, and the idea of one element transmuting into another sounded downright preposterous.11 12
Incidentally, Rutherford was assisted in this work a great deal by Harriet Brooks, Canada’s first female nuclear physicist. She was regarded as one of the brightest minds in physics, and is another of the many unsung women in science history.13 Whenever he had the chance, Rutherford always spoke glowingly of her, if you’ll pardon the pun. In a recommendation letter for a fellowship, Rutherford said, “next to Mme. Curie she is the most prominent woman physicist in the department of radioactivity.” In a personal letter to a colleague, he called Brooks “a woman of great personal charm and marked intellectual interests.”14 And when she died at the young age of 56 — possibly because of her work with radioactive elements — Rutherford wrote an obituary for Nature that emphasized the foundational importance of her work “to the then youthful science of radioactivity.”
Rutherford was also quick to note that the Curies played a big part in this work. In general, he seems to have been the kind of guy who genuinely wished to give credit where credit was due. Make no mistake, though — Rutherford did have an ego. He was competing quite fiercely with noble gas superstar William Ramsay in his study of these emanations, and he didn’t think very highly of Ramsay’s work. In 1908, he succeeded in developing a photograph of radium-emanation’s chemical spectrum. Ramsay claimed to have done the same, but Rutherford thought he was full of bull-emanations — and he was quite pleased at the thought of getting one over on old Ramsay. In a letter, he wrote, “I think [my colleague] Royds and I have certainly succeeded in making Ramsay temporally very unhappy.” Or, as renowned chemist Sir Martyn Poliakoff so delightfully puts it:
I just think it’s so wonderful. We always think of these scientists from the past as being saints. And here he is in his office thinking, ‘Hee hee, I’ve made my competitor feel uncomfortable!'”15
Anyway, it soon became difficult to deny that this was, indeed, a new element. For Ramsay’s part, he published the following:
«emanation from radium», … is a cumbrous expression, and sufficient evidence has now been accumulated that it is an element… It is true that it is only a transient element, and ought in justice to be called a compound; but of what? It stands on a wholly different plane to any known compound (…) It is a gas; it follows Boyle’s law; (…) it resembles the gases of the argon series in its indifference to chemical reagents (…) Now, it appears advisable to devise a name which should recall its source, AND … express the radical difference which undoubtedly exists between it and other elements. As it is derived from radium, why not name it simply «exradio»?”
Ooo, so close.
Ramsay also proposed “exthorio” and “exactinio” for those emanations coming from thorium and actinium. When those names didn’t catch on, Ramsay said, “Okay, how about ‘niton,’ from the Latin for ‘shining?'” This too was met with a collective “meh,” and these substances continued to be called “radium emanation” and such for 13 more years.
In 1923, predecessors to the IUPAC chose the names radon, thoron, and actinon. These were all isotopes of the same element, though, and since naming every isotope got rather cumbersome rather quickly, they were all filed under the name “radon.” (Radon-222, radon-220, and radon 219, to be precise.)
Brooks and Curie and all the other pioneers of radiation couldn’t possibly have known that this newly discovered phenomenon could lead to their demise decades later — but the rest of us learned quickly. Now we keep safety standards in place for those who work closely with radioactive substances. For instance, in 1984, Pennsylvania’s Limerick nuclear reactor installed alarms that would sound if any employees leaving the site seemed to be dangerously irradiated.
So everyone was very confused when construction engineer Stanley Watras set off those alarms, sirens blaring and red lights flashing. Confused because Watras wasn’t leaving the plant — he had just shown up for another day on the job. What’s weirder is that the site was still under construction, so there wasn’t even any nuclear fuel there yet.
Watras had come straight from home, so investigators checked that first — and almost immediately found the problem. As you can probably guess, it was radon. Lots of radon. The air in the Watras’ home was reading radiation levels 700 times greater than the safe limit for human exposure. As the Chicago Tribune put it at the time, Watras and his family were nearly seven times as likely as an average person to get lung cancer in the following decade.16 In terms of exposure, it was as though they had all been smoking several hundred packs of cigarettes every day17 — because of course there’s radon in cigarettes. Cigarettes are the hall of fame of chemical poisons, wrapped up in convenient tube form.18 19
So how did the radon get in Watras’ house? The same way that it usually escapes into the atmosphere. It seeped into the basement from the rocks beneath the house — and once it got there, it wasn’t going anywhere.20
The problem is that radon is quite heavy for a gas — its atomic number is 86, after all. So without deliberately venting the gas outdoors, the radon just kind of pools up at the lowest point it can find. By the way, that was the solution for the Watras house — a strategically placed duct and a decent fan were all that it it took to lower radon back down to safe levels. There might be such a contraption in your own home, too. It mostly depends on where you are and the hyperlocal geology beneath your abode. Domestic radon isn’t a terribly common problem, but it is common enough to support a thriving radon testing and mitigation industry.21
Radon is a known carcinogen, and we generally go to great lengths to limit our exposure. So it’s especially baffling that some people willingly, even joyfully pump it into their bodies.22 23 No, I’m not playing coy about cigarettes again. Astoundingly, there are several places around the world where clients can be exposed to relatively high levels of radon. (Not as much as was in the Watras house, but much higher than the EPA’s safe limit.) These “radon spas” can be found in Ukraine, Czechia, Austria, and Montana, among other places.24 Proponents claim that radium has anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties that work when nothing else will (although plenty of people also casually claim that this treatment can deepen sleep, lower cholesterol, and cure infertility).25 26 27 28
Still, it’s possible these passionate enthusiasts could be on to something. The amount of radon the EPA considers acceptable is very, very low, so it’s possible that slightly elevated levels of radon might not be very hazardous. Paracelsus might utter his perpetual refrain, and there are plenty of people who have endured such exposure to no visible ill effect.33
In fact, Stanley Watras and his family seem to be among them. Reliable information is hard to come by, but it seems that he’s still with us and doing just fine.. In 1997, he appeared in a PBS FRONTLINE documentary about nuclear power, and public records suggest that he’s still alive and voting in Pennsylvania.34
Despite all that, I will formally recommend that you not collect radium at densities above 4 picocuries per liter. If you laugh and flout this suggestion, being the rebel you are, there are a few ways you could collect a sizable sample of this noble gas.
It is occasionally used in oncological treatment, making it one of those strange elements that can be the cause of and solution to cancer. Sometimes it’s even delivered via little vessels of pure gold.35
But if aesthetics matter to you the handsomest way to collect radon is probably by acquiring an antique watch that has (or had) numbers on its face that provide their own light. Those watches were painted with a special paint that contained radium and… well, we’re going to hear all about that very soon. For now, I’ll just say those watches are still emanating radon today, and leave it at that.36
And that’s the trick. Like so many of the upcoming elements, radon has a pretty short half-life — a little over three days. That means you don’t want a vial of radon, you want something that will continuously emanate radon as it decays. Perhaps you’re sitting atop such a source right now. You’d certainly surprise the contractor conducting your radon test if its failure put a big smile on your face.
Perhaps I’ll get a little more adventurous in the future, but for now, I’ll be satisfied with the trace amounts that exist in the air near my element collection. There might not be very many of them, but they are there, and they’re very important.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn about the little mining town that gave the world the dollar and caught the attention of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Josef Stalin, visit episodic table dot com slash R n.
Next time, we’ll say “bonjour” to period 7 with francium.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that Mr. DNA is in yer blood!
- The Atlantic, Mutations And Evolution. Evelyn M. Witkin, October 1957.
- Technology Review, Cosmic Rays, Neutrons And The Mutation Rate In Evolution. July 4, 2014.
- Based on these calculations performed by Anthony Newman on Quora.
- WGN9, How Much Radon Is There In The Atmosphere? Tom Skilling, June 18, 2019.
- Development And Application Of Computer Techniques To Environmental Studies, Radon Concentration In The Atmosphere As An Indicator Of The Height Of The Mixing Layer In The Region Of Mining Activity (PDF). L. Osrodka, K. Skubacz, J. Skowrownek, E. Krajny, M. Wojtylak, 2002.
- The Royal Society Of Chemistry, Radon.
- Scientific American, Physician Paracelsus And Early Medical Geology. David Bressan, September 26, 2014.
- Epidemiology And Quantitation Of Environmental Risk In Humans From Radiation And Other Agents, On The Effects Of Exposure To Radon Daughters In Metal Mines And In Homes. Olav Axelson.
- The History Of The Radon Problem In Mines And Homes, W. Jacobi.
- Mc Laughlin J. An historical overview of radon and its progeny: applications and health effects. Radiat Prot Dosimetry. 2012 Nov;152(1-3):2-8. doi: 10.1093/rpd/ncs189. Epub 2012 Aug 22. PMID: 22914338.
- Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Radon. Peter van der Krogt.
- Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations, Thoron Decay.
- Linda Hall Library, Scientist Of The Day – Harriet Brooks. July 2, 2020.
- Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist, p. 100. Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, 1992.
- The Periodic Table Of Videos, Radon.
- Chicago Tribune, Invisible Killer Invades Home. Anwar Iqbal, October 8, 1987.
- ChemMatters, Sick Buildings: Air Pollution Comes Home (PDF). Michelle Laliberte, October 2006.
- The EPA Blog, Radon May Be Radioactive And Cause Cancer, But Can It Set Off Alarms At A Nuclear Power Plant? Jani Palmer, January 10, 2021.
- Pocono Record, Got Radon? Dan Berrett, January 21, 2007.
- Massachusetts Environmental Public Health Tracking, Radon Lessons: What Watras Taught Us.
- Las Cruces Sun News, January Is National Radon Action Month. Gary Sandler, January 3, 2021.
- Frontiers Of Public Health, Radon Sources And Associated Risk In Terms Of Exposure And Dose. Efstratios G. Vogiannis and Dimitrios Nikolopoulos, January 5, 2015.
- National Cancer Institute, Radon And Cancer.
- For instance, the a-little-too-on-the-nose Free Enterprise Radon Mine in Boulder, or the Merry Widow Health Mine. You can’t make this stuff up!
- The World, Thousands Of People Are ‘Treated’ With Radon Baths Every Year In Ukraine. Julie Masis, July 8, 2016.
- BBC Future, A Spa Where Patients Bathe In Radioactive Water. Matthew Vickery, March 7, 2018.
- American Nuclear Society, Radon Spas. Last updated July 11, 2012.
- Forbes, In Germany And Austria, Visits To Radon Spas Are Covered By Health Insurance. Geoffrey Kabat, February 2, 2019.
- Rheumatology International, Long-Term Benefits Of Radon Spa Therapy In Rheumatic Diseases: Results Of The Randomised, Multi-Centre IMuRa Trial. Franke Annegret and Franke Thomas, July 18, 2013.
- Erickson, Barbra E. “The therapeutic use of radon: a biomedical treatment in Europe; an “alternative” remedy in the United States.” Dose-response : a publication of International Hormesis Society vol. 5,1 48-62. 23 Sep. 2006, doi:10.2203/dose-response.06-007.Erickson
- Winklmayr M, Kluge C, Winklmayr W, Küchenhoff H, Steiner M, Ritter M, Hartl A. Radon balneotherapy and physical activity for osteoporosis prevention: a randomized, placebo-controlled intervention study. Radiat Environ Biophys. 2015 Mar;54(1):123-136. doi: 10.1007/s00411-014-0568-z. Epub 2014 Oct 2. PMID: 25274266.
- Verhagen AP, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Boers M, Cardoso JR, Lambeck J, De Bie R, De Vet HC. Balneotherapy (or spa therapy) for rheumatoid arthritis. An abridged version of Cochrane Systematic Review. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2015 Dec;51(6):833-47. Epub 2015 Jul 9. PMID: 26158921.
- American Scientist, Risks And Benefits Of Radiation. Timothy J. Jorgensen.
- PBS FRONTLINE, Nuclear Reaction: Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power?
- HealthTap Ask Doctors, Why Would Radon Be A Treatment For Cancer When It Causes Cancer? Answered by Dr. Natarajan Raman.
- The Elements, Radon. Theodore Gray.