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[cdn-nucl-l] Japan: "we don't see the need to regulate radon"
The author's claim that radon killed Madame Curie is inaccurate.
She inhaled plenty of radon, but did not die of lung cancer. She carried
out all kinds of research with X-rays and radioactivity (radium)
http://www.aip.org/history/curie/ . She even trucked X-ray equipment to the
WWI battlefields and used it on wounded soldiers. She died in 1934 at 66
years of age -- quite a long life in those days.
While scientists debate its hazards,
health-seekers bathe in the glow of radon
Mainichi Daily News, October 28, 2004
To many scientists, it's a gas so toxic it's almost evil. It's been singled
out as the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, right
behind smoking. It even killed the woman who discovered it - Madame Marie
But to Shiro Umeda, sprightly at 74, radon is the best thing since aspirin.
Every month for the past 10 years, he has come to a radon bath here to soak
it up and breathe it in. He's convinced it has helped keep his back pain in
check and contributed positively to his overall health.
Undaunted by warnings from the scientific community that the highly
radioactive gas is a carcinogen, tens of thousands of health-seekers like
Umeda are drawn each year to hot springs in Japan, spas in Hungary, even
mine shafts in rural Montana by claims that radon can cure a wide variety of
"Not a doubt in my mind," Umeda said after a recent session. "It makes me
The popularity of radon is nothing new.
At the turn of the century, its curative powers were believed to be so
strong that products containing radon or radium, its parent element, ranged
from toothpaste and beauty creams to nose-cup inhalers and chocolate bars.
Research has since led most health experts to make an about-face.
Most, but not all.
While acknowledging that high doses are undoubtedly dangerous, Yutaka
Okumura, a professor of radiology at Nagasaki University, a leading center
of radiation research, said the issue may not be as simple as some of the
more dire cautions suggest.
Okumura cited a study he participated in that found cancer fatalities
between 1976 and 1993 among more than 4,300 people living near one of
Japan's most famous radon springs, Misasa, were significantly lower than
rates elsewhere. Radon levels in the test area were about three times higher
than those in the control areas.
"I believe people who frequent radon hot springs may be less likely to die
of cancer," he said.
Still, Nagasaki University professor Shunichi Yamashita, a colleague of
Okumura's who specializes in the effects of radiation on atomic-bomb
victims, said many radon hot springs are safe simply because, unlike Misasa,
they don't actually have much radon.
"Japanese radon baths use so little radon, almost non-measurable or close to
zero, that there should be no worries at all," he said.
Other than Okumura's cancer study, there is also little evidence linking
radon to any specific health benefits. Claims like radon-believer Umeda's
are often explained by researchers as the result of the placebo effect, or
to the soothing heat of the bathwater itself.
That the gas can be deadly is not a question.
Radon, produced by the decay of radium, is classified as a carcinogen by the
World Health Organization. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
estimates radon in indoor air causes about 21,000 deaths each year in the
United States alone, and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after
Its first known victim was French scientist Madame Curie, who won her second
Nobel Prize in 1911 for discovering radium and another radioactive element.
She eventually developed chronic radiation sickness from her daily contact
with radon and radium and died of leukemia.
The gas normally enters the body through inhalation. Most is exhaled right
back out again, but some can accumulate in the lungs, where its radioactive
decay can harm the tissue around it and lead to cancer.
Such warnings are nowhere to be found at this popular indoor radon bath on
Tokyo's southern outskirts. Signs instead claim radon can heal everything
from high blood pressure to hemorrhoids.
"Alpha waves emitted by the gas are brought into the body when you breathe,"
one sign says. "They go to every corner of your capillaries. ... This active
metabolization brought about by radon is the cause of its refreshing and
Pamphlets for the center add that its "health rooms" are "pumped full of
radon from six large-scale radon-producing machines." The bath's manager
refused to comment on the specifics, but said the machines used are set to
Whether that's even possible is a matter of debate.
"There is no safe level of radon _ any exposure poses some risk of cancer,"
the U.S. EPA says on its Radon Information web site.
The Japanese government, meanwhile, has taken a very different stance.
"For now, we don't see the need to regulate radon," said Ryosuke Murayama,
of the science agency's nuclear regulation office. "Radon that exists in the
air is minimal, and thus poses little health danger."