Radon Hazards, Detection, and Mitigation

A PALEONTOLOGY LABORATORY APPROACH TO RADON HAZARDS, DETECTION, AND MITIGATION

Gavin McCullough
Arizona Museum of Natural History
Mesa, Arizona

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that occurs as a product of radium or uranium decay. In recent years, radon has been identified as a serious health hazard in residential and industrial environments, the EPA estimating that about 20,000 lung cancer deaths are radon-related. Radon poses a risk of lung cancer to non-smokers, and a far greater risk of lung cancer to smokers. Recently the AZNMH tested its paleontology laboratory and storage vaults for radon, based on observations that the parent sediments contain uranium. After testing with store-bought radon detectors followed up by testing by an environmental/industrial safety company, we discovered that Pliocene fossils collected from southeastern Arizona are sources of elevated radon levels (above 4 pCi/L, the EPA “action level”). Immediate action included 24-hour active ventilation, simple dust control measures, and increased passive ventilation during work hours. The results of our action are that paleontology lab radon levels have steadily decreased at a rate of 0.10 pCi/L per week. In addition, we are scheduled to receive an industrial-grade ventilation system as part of a safety upgrade allowance. Radon detection is inexpensive and mitigation is not complicated, but health risks due to radon exposure can be severe. Radon testing should be emphasized as part of environmental safety regimes in laboratory and industrial situations that work with fossils, rocks, or create mineral dust as part of their work.

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Last updated: February 24, 2015

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