Handbook of Radon. Preface.

Detailed knowledge of ionising radiation has developed only in the last hundred years. In 1895, Roentgen discovered x-rays. In the following year Becquerel discovered radioactivity. Understanding grew rapidly, but by 1900 adverse health effects had already been reported. In 1900 also, Dorn discovered radon, although it was not isolated until 1908.

The discovery of radon as an element followed from Marie Curie's discovery of radium in 1898. However, as early as 1556 radon had (unknowingly) been cited as the cause of lung cancer in miners.

Since the 1900s radium and radon have been used in various and often bogus medical preparations and procedures, including inhalation and bathing in mines and spas, a practice that continues to the present day despite absence of any proven benefit. It was to take many deaths, including those of early radiographers before the dangers of ionising radiation were fully appreciated. The true extent of the radon problem in dwellings has only recently been documented, nearly forty years after the first discoveries.

Contemporary interest in radon as a health risk is based primarily on studies of lung cancer in miners. Since the 1950s radon has become a major topic in several countries. This period coincides almost exactly with the rise and fall of nuclear power throughout the world - France and Japan being notable as exceptions.

The nuclear age started with a promise - limitless cheap energy. It progressed via various misguided and then bogus claims for safety and cost that led inevitably to recognition of economic realities. Billions of dollars were spent, and even in the West civil science became veiled in secrecy.

A generation of scientifically naive politicians became wedded to the idea of dominion over Nature. At last, Man and Technology were to conquer the world. Many nuclear scientists knew that the advice being fed to politicians was flawed. In the USSR and USA alike, grandiose schemes were supported by deceit.

Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 were perhaps inevitable consequences of pretence and secrecy. Of course, the demanding technical problems of reactors and especially those of 'fast' designs that utilise plutonium as a fuel, would have remained to challenge engineers. Yet if scientific reality and open discussion had been valued more highly than vested interests and marketing pretence, present-day perceptions of the industry might be different.

The contemporary history of radon has parallels with the early history of nuclear power. The science is well (albeit imperfectly) understood. Large public programmes, some based more on marketing and myth than on sound science have developed. Control of publicity and funding by a few key personnel ensured reinforcement of chosen perspectives for many years. In the UK, with its Official Secrets Act, much of the radon story cannot be told.

Nuclear energy and radon share also the central difficulty of flawed public perception: relative risk and the need to set nuclear issues in a correct perspective cannot be addressed until radiological protection is demystified. One benefit of radon programmes world-wide may be a better understanding of the risks of moderate exposure to ionising radiation from other sources.

This Handbook is primarily concerned with explaining radon and how to reduce unacceptably high exposure in many types of buildings. It is hoped that it will serve also to encourage wider recognition of the need for analysis when allocating resources.

Stephen J Wozniak
August 1992


Assistance given by field-trial householders in Devon & Cornwall is acknowledged. Thanks are owed also to scientists and others in England and the United States of America.

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