As temperatures continue to increase due to climate change, the ice at the poles seems to be melting away more rapidly than ever. While there are numerous risks and consequences that this permafrost thawing is expected to expose us to, we now have one more to add to the list. According to a new study, the thawing of permafrost in the northern regions is expected to release radon, which may increase the risk of cancer among the Arctic communities.
What is Radon?
Classified as a noble gas, radon is a radioactive element that is formed as a result of the interaction of elements such as radium, uranium, or thorium with groundwater, or rocks and soil. The gas is usually odourless, colourless, and tasteless. Specialised equipment is required to detect its presence in the atmosphere.
The gas is known to move up through pathways in the ground and find its way into the buildings and houses where it is trapped in the foundations as well as the walls. Radon is known to be the second most common cause of lung cancer in the world. Smokers are worse affected by the gas as compared to non-smokers. However, it is also the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
Permafrost Thawing and Radon
Radon is found in the ground and can make its way up through structures such as houses. In regions with permafrost, such as the Arctic, the gas tends to remain trapped under the ice. Due to the permafrost barrier, radon does not affect the local population to a large extent.
However, the rapid melting of ice around the world, especially the polar regions, could mean that the gas is no longer trapped by the ice barrier. It risks finding pathways towards the ground and over, into housing areas.
The team of researchers studied the effect of permafrost thawing with respect to buildings with sub-surface and surface basements, as well as traditional houses built on piles. In case of buildings with basements, it was found that radon presence could increase over 100x its initial value for seven years. However, traditional housing (built on piles) did not seem to run the risk of radon pollution.
“Our results show clearly that the pent-up reservoir of radon can be released into the basements of buildings over a long period and will remain above radiation action levels for four to seven years. Since there has been no perceived historical radon problem in these communities and the gas itself is undetectable without specialist devices, we regard this as an important and totally avoidable threat to the health of the northern communities,” said Professor Paul Glover, one of the authors of the study.
He further highlights the health risks of radon: “Radon is known to be the second most important cause of lung cancer after smoking. Smoking also exacerbates radon-acquired lung cancer rates by about 26 times, and smoking is up to 4.4 times more prevalent in Arctic communities. Consequently, an unexpected plume of radon could represent a dangerous health hazard if it is not planned for. Fortunately, simply-installed ventilation is all that is often required if the problem is recognised.”
The study recognises the need for a better understanding of the petrophysical properties of the Arctic soil. It acknowledges the possibility of radon finding more efficient pathways to the surface.
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