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What Are the Effects of Radiation and Radon?

Radiation can destroy tissue and ionize and fragment cells. Radon is a radioactive isotope that has been linked to increased instances of lung cancer. Radon-222 is formed naturally as part of the decay of uranium.


Radiation can have two basic effects on the body:

  • It can destroy cells with heat. Radiation generates heat. This heat can destroy tissue, much like a sunburn does. In fact, the term radiation burn is commonly used to describe the destruction of skin and tissue due to heat.

  • It can ionize and fragment cells. Radioactive particles and radiation have a lot of kinetic energy (energy of motion) associated with them.

    When these particles strike cells within the body, they can fragment (destroy) the cells or ionize the cells — turn the cells into ions (charged atoms) by knocking off an electron. Ionization weakens bonds and can lead to the damage, destruction, or mutation of the cells.


Radon is a radioactive isotope that’s received a lot of publicity. Radon-222 is formed naturally as part of the decay of uranium. It’s an unreactive noble gas, so it escapes from the ground into the air. Because it’s heavier than air, it can accumulate in basements.

Radon itself has a short half-life of 3.8 days, but it decays to Polonium-218, a solid. So if radon is inhaled, solid Po-218 can accumulate in the lungs. Po-218 is an alpha emitter, and, even though this type of radiation is not very penetrating, it has been linked to increased instances of lung cancer.

In many parts of the United States, radon testing is performed before selling a house. Commercial test kits can be opened, left in the basement area for a specified amount of time, and then sent to a lab for analysis. The question of whether radon represents a serious problem is still being investigated and debated.

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