One Response to Our Children’s Increasingly Indoor Lifestyle

Peter C. Foller, Ph.D. 

Through COVID-19, we have all been staying home more. Thus, the importance of ensuring the safety of our home environment has taken on new urgency. Given the interests of the present generation of our children, the importance of air quality in our indoor environments was already heightened.  

With the increasing use of a panoply of electronic devices-- for communications, education, gaming, and seemingly endless on-line distractions, young people are spending more and more time indoors and less time out in the fresh air. There may be implications to physical fitness and to the building of natural immunities; however, other possible longer-term consequences also bear thinking about.

As we all know, elevated levels of radon and the incidence of lung cancer go hand-in-hand. It is an insidious disease. The age of first diagnosis of lung cancer skews heavily to the later decades of life. See Figure 1. [Ref. 1] This is simply a matter of how long it takes for the cumulative effects of low levels of ionizing radiation on DNA to show up. That children do not present with lung cancer does not mean they are unaffected. Early exposure needs to be minimized.  

Homes should be evaluated for possible radon hazards. There are many ways to do this. As one might expect, the costs trade against how thoroughly one decides to proceed. However, let’s consider creative ways to address this, below.
So, what constitutes best practice in determining the radon safety of one’s home? The gold standard is to call in a certified home inspector or radon professional. However, owning a relatively low-cost modern electronic continuous radon detector is the next best thing. With such a device, seasonal variations can be seen. Radon enters a home from underlying soil through the differential pressure effects of indoor versus outdoor temperature. Thus, seasonal variation is expected. As an example of modern continuous electronic radon monitors, one would not go wrong choosing the EcoQube by Ecosense ( www.ecosense.io, San Jose, CA).

However, legacy passive techniques for the monitoring of radon levels are still in widespread use. These are: 1) the use of CR-39 plastic track detector chips, and 2) the use of activated carbon packets. Both are exposed for a period time (the user’s choice, but generally a few weeks) and sent away to a laboratory for analysis and report generation. Such methods, unless repeated, do not allow for learning of possibly crucial long-term seasonal variations. They also do not, as an EcoQube would, allow family members to quickly (and graphically) see the effects of periodically opening windows when the weather is nice, a good life-long habit to get into. Remember, radon levels are a good proxy for the accumulation of all manner of indoor air pollution. Any temporary uptick in level can always serve as a gentle reminder that outdoor fresh air activities benefit our children in many ways.

The virtue of the legacy radon measurement techniques is their low cost. These short-term techniques are essentially within reach of everyone, and they are able to tell you whether your home presently measures over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 4 pCi/L threshold for taking mitigation action. That is good news-- equity in basic, essential information is within reach. If your home tests high, it should be remembered that the hazard radon presents is not one of instantaneous exposure, it is exposure over a long period of time-- just like children getting a lot of sun one summer does immediately mean skin cancer. Thus, no need to panic, just resolve to begin a thorough investigation of your options.

Investing in the better information a continuous electronic radon monitor provides would be a good next step. However, if such discretionary spending is out of reach, perhaps community ownership models can be arranged? Individual initiative can work wonders. You can help yourself and others by arranging to circulate a shared device.
- Family, friends, and neighbors: Consider sharing an EcoQube between homes a month at a time.
- Church groups: Add lending to your parishioner and charitable outreach.
- Teachers: Consider a home science module that can range from temperature and pressure to air quality, to geology, to radiation, to DNA (the code of life).
- All of us: Engage civic leaders to set up lending programs.
- Municipal librarians: Engage your board. Many of you lend more than just books.  

Part of the problem of radon is one of simple awareness. If you own an EcoQube or arrange to borrow one, you can share your home’s data with others by using its Wi-Fi capability. If your home has an issue, it is quite likely that your neighbors and cross-town friends in similar homes may have an issue as well.  

When it comes to keeping our homes safe and doing all we can to ensure our children live long healthy lives, achieving equity in essential knowledge may not take much more than finding new and creative ways to cooperate. 

References:
1. U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. U.S. Cancer Statistics Data Visualizations Tool, based on 2020 submission data (1999-2018): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Cancer Institute; https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dataviz, released in June 2021.Figure 1. Rate of New Lung and Bronchus Cancers by Age (all ethnicities) [Ref. 1]

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