Art Nash

You probably knew that there is an abundance of gold scattered throughout Alaska, but were you aware that uranium is also present in many locations?

For over half a century, there has been geological surveying in the state for uranium, from handheld Geiger counters to aerial surveys. It was mined commercially for a time on Prince of Wales Island, but uranium can be found around Alaska in soil and rocks.

As uranium decays at a very slow pace, it will eventually create a daughter product, radon gas. It occurs naturally when uranium and radium break down. Radon gas finds its way into homes through cracks and around other openings in the foundation.

The type of radiation associated with radon is called alpha energy and is a leading cause of lung cancer. Now, the sun gives off radiation, which can cause skin cancer after prolonged periods of solar exposure. Nuclear blasts, in the category of what I call “Big R” radiation, certainly also put out carcinogenic radiation. Yet in each of these cases you can directly see the effects of exposure, such as brown patches of skin from solar radiation or nausea and direct burns from a blast.

But with radon, you will never see the damage it does to the lung tissues usually until it is too late to heal it. The only way to know if you have undue radon gas concentration levels is to test!

At the beginning of this year, I recommended that residents of Southcentral that were affected by the November 2018 earthquake test for radon regardless of when their home or business had been last tested. This was based on retesting protocol from national codes written in part by members of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. This was due to the fact that radon gas diffusion pathways through soils and rock could have been altered by the shifting landscape.

So to put it in perspective, the what I call “little r” radiation — escaping radon gas — is important to be aware of and test for, yet it is not as apparent nor immediate in its damage as the types of radiation with a “Big R” most of us immediately think of when hearing “radiation.” And radon may be more of a chronic problem, as it is not detected by nausea, skin lesions and burns from the thermal effects of radiation that people usually recognize.

Remember, you can’t smell, taste or see radon, yet it is the second leading cause of cancer, next to smoking. If you are exposed to elevated radon level and tobacco smoke, your risk for lung cancer is even higher.

Since January is Radon Action Month why not test sometime next month? If you have questions about testing methods, placement of a test kit or how to mitigate elevated levels of radon, call the Alaska Radon Hotline at 1-800-478-8324 for information. The Extension publication on understanding, testing for and mitigating radon also has useful information. It is available at bit.ly/2QMRfsF.

Art Nash is the Extension energy and radon specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 907-474-6366 or by email at alnashjr@alaska.edu.