In 1984, Stanley J. Watras was a construction engineer at the Limerick nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. A monitor was installed at the plant to check workers to make sure they did not accidentally accumulate an unsafe dose of radiation at work.
One day, on his way to work, Mr. Watras entered the plant and set off the radiation monitor alarms that help protect workers by detecting exposure to radiation. Safety personnel checked him out, but could not find the source of the radiation. Interestingly, because the plant was under construction at the time, there was no nuclear fuel at the plant, so there was no way for Mr. Watras to have been exposed to any radiation at work.
Eventually, they discovered that Mr. Watras was not picking up the radiation at work, but rather was bringing it to work from home! A team of specialists was sent to the Mr. Watras’ home to investigate. There, they measured radiation levels about 700 times higher than the maximum level considered safe for human exposure (the home tested at 2,700 pCi/L and a safe level is at or below 4 pCi/L). The source of this enormous amount of radiation turned out to be radon, a naturally-occurring gas that made its way into the Watras home from underground. It had nothing to do with Mr. Watras’ job. The entire family was living in an environment roughly equivalent to smoking a couple of hundred packs of cigarettes per day. They moved out of the house immediately, while the problem was being fixed.
After Mr. Watras and his family evacuated their house, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Pennsylvania officials turned it into a laboratory for long-term measurement of radon and radon decay products and evaluation of radon mitigation techniques. After many months, they reduced the radon concentration to an acceptable level, and the family was able to return. After installing a radon-reduction system, radon levels in the home tested below 4 pCi/L.
Radon is a Class A carcinogen, which means it is known to cause cancer in humans. Most people do not know that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the Canada, resulting in approximately 3,200 lung cancer deaths each year. Only smoking causes more lung cancers.
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