Study Correlates Radon and Fracking | Fluence

While some researchers implicate Marcellus Shale fracking for increased levels of radon in parts of Pennsylvania, others point to factors including soil moisture levels and improved home insulation.

As researchers debate causes of increased radon level, residents must find ways to deal with it

Radon is an odorless, tasteless, naturally occurring radioactive gas that forms from the decay of radium and uranium. High residential levels of radon gas have always been a problem in some parts of the Northeast United States, especially in Pennsylvania, but a recent study has found a correlation between the Marcellus Shale natural gas fracking boom and a recent, disturbing spike in residential radon levels. The increase has taken researchers by surprise. Several plausible alternate explanations for increased radon levels have been proposed, so further research will be needed to establish or dismiss a causal relationship between fracking and radon levels.

Marcellus Shale

The Marcellus Shale, a bedrock formation that underlies most of Pennsylvania, contains high levels of radon. The state has some of the highest levels in the nation and possibly the world, with levels at some homes found to be 250 times the amount considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency. No level of radon is considered safe; in the U.S. it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. Typically, radon collects in poorly ventilated basements.

Causes of Radon Spike Debated

Dave Allard, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP’s) Bureau of Radiation Protection, stresses that radon levels have been climbing statewide on a timeline, not just in areas with fracking operations. He believes they are probably related to elevated soil moisture.

Yet Johns Hopkins researcher Joan Casey, the study’s lead author, used the DEP’s own extensive data to isolate a correlation between fracking and radon levels, and she asserts that her study considered the state’s soil moisture levels. She and her team determined that when fracking was underway, levels of indoor radon spiked where fracking was more prevalent, and homes that were located closer to fracking operations had higher indoor radon levels than homes farther away.

Co-author Brian Schwartz, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, suggested that a third variable, better home insulation, may be responsible for elevated radon gas levels in homes. He recommends more research that considers building features.

Significantly, the study also found that radon levels were 21% higher in houses with water wells than in homes on a water grid. Schwartz explains that because radon dissolves in water, it may enter homes through groundwater-sourced showers and faucets.

Treatment for Radon-Contaminated Water

In areas where residential water is contaminated with radon, there are a couple of treatment options. One is treatment by activated carbon filtration, but the carbon may become dangerously radioactive and require special handling.

Because radon is a gas, aeration can thoroughly remove radon without dangerous radioactive concentrations building up in media. The Breeze air stripper from Fluence, paired with the nonfouling bubble Cyclone II diffuser, is becoming popular for removing radon gas, as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It removes as much as 99.99% of radon present.

It’s clear that no matter the reason for increased levels of radon, residents of areas with high levels of radon must deal with the effects.