Update: Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal has launched a bill to protect New Yorkers against radon exposure from shale gas.
Video: Al Appleton connects the dots on Spectra, radon and boilers
Video: Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient at Cooper Union Forum on Radon.
Radon is a radioactive gas that is released whenever gas is extracted. It travels with the gas through pipelines to the point of use. Radon has always been present in natural gas, and is currently present in the NYC gas supply. However, the gas supply to New York City is changing.
Prior to the use of high-volume, slick water, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the gas coming to New York City was supplied from areas in Texas, Louisiana and the Southwest, or as the map at left indicates (in blue), from areas of low radioactivity and at great distance.
As shown on the map above (in pink) The Marcellus shale play is particularly high in radioactivity; Scientists estimate it is between 10 to 70 times more radioactive than average. Following the development of fracking, more and more of New York’s gas supply will be coming from this area. The proposed Spectra pipeline has been leased to Chesapeake Energy, one of the main Marcellus drillers.
The fact that this source is physically much closer to New York also means that the radon has less time to decay in transit, a matter of hours from drill sites in Pennsylvania. It follows that radon levels in city apartments will therefore be higher as the proportion of Marcellus gas in our supply increases. During winter months, when demand is higher, gas is delivered faster, and with apartment windows tending to be closed, the risk would be even greater.
Radon is an inert gas, it cannot be burned off or mitigated except by radioactive decay. It has a half-life of 3.8 days. Using the general rule of thumb of 10 half-lives to decay to 1/1000 of original concentration, that would be 38 days, or roughly one month.
With radon gas, the minimum dangerous concentration is much lower if breathed in. Twenty half-lives (or 1/1,000,000 of original concentration) would require 76 days or two and a half months. When fully decayed, radon converts to polonium and finally lead, also dangerous substances.
Of particular concern is the typical New York City kitchen, which tends to be small, poorly ventilated, and usually without a window or hood vented to the outside. New York City building codes now prohibit external wall vents for cooking appliances and gas dryers, and most apartments have only a recirculating hood or a passive wall vent. Passive vents are connected to other apartments via a vertical duct and release to the roof of the building. In many homes, that vent is often sealed to block neighbor’s cooking odors, exacerbating the problem of poor ventilation.
Although–like asbestos–when inhaled, there is no safe amount of radon, the EPA has set a measure of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) as the “actionable” level inside a home. Researchers at Johns Hopkins advocate for lowering the actionable level of radon to 2pC/L, because of the high levels of background radiation in modern life. The majority of readings from recent citywide tests, organized by Sane Energy Project, showed radon levels in the gas supplied to city kitchens measuring less than .3 pCi/L. At the moment, our radon levels are very low, and we want to keep it that way.
The Spectra pipeline, the Rockaway Lateral, and planned upgrades at the Harlem Transco metering station, will increase the proportion of Marcellus gas mixed into the city’s gas supply. This could increase the risk that NYC residents will inhale radon when they cook with their gas stoves, do laundry with their gas dryers, or maintain their gas boilers. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, and the increased exposure could potentially cause an additional 30,000 lung cancer deaths.
Radon is even more of a danger to children and pets, because it is a “heavy” gas (it decays to lead) and is known to “sink,” meaning it seeks the lowest level of the space it occupies. Combined with studies that link gas cooking emissions with lowered infant development, this is truly cause for alarm. The draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) of the Spectra pipeline did not include radon in its review of issues. This is a subject that deserves study before any more Marcellus gas is delivered to the residents of the five boroughs, where it may endanger the health of tens of thousands of citizens. Radon levels in residential gas must be monitored and kept at current low levels.
In addition to the inhalation risk, radon and its source, radium, create other problems with pipelines: As the gas travels, decay causes radioactive elements (the so-called, “daughters of radon”) to plate out on the sides of the pipelines, eventually creating radioactive “hot pipes.” Replacement, disposal, and cross-contamination with nearby water pipes and utilities could be yet another result of the use of high-radon fracked gas.
Map: US Geological Survey
Chart: Comparative danger of radon
Radon in Natural Gas from Marcellus Shale By Marvin Resnikoff, Radioactive Waste Management Associates
Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter press release quoting Professor James W. Ring, Professor Emeritus of Nuclear Physics at Hamilton College
Gas Emissions can Stifle Infant Development, Environmental Health News
EPA guide to Radon