When Stanley Watras, a Bechtel Group engineer assigned to the Limerick nuclear-power plant in Boyertown, Pa., set off radiation monitors last winter, that in itself was unusual. Nuclear-plant workers rarely come into contact with radioactive substances during their daily routine. What disturbed Watras even more was that he tripped the detectors not while he was leaving the nuclear complex but when he was entering it. As a result, he requested that Limerick's owner, Philadelphia Electric Co. (PECO), check radiation levels at his house in Colebrookdale, Pa., a few miles from the plant.
Five days later, PECO technicians took air samples at the Watras home and discovered extraordinary concentrations of radon, a radioactive gaseous element that can cause cancer. The technicians were so startled by their finding that they ran their test a second time. The result was the same: the samples showed the house contained what turned out to be the highest concentration of the colorless, odorless, tasteless gas ever found in the U.S. The Pennsylvania department of environmental resources estimates that by living in the radon-tainted environment for one year, Watras, 34, and his wife Diane, 33, had been exposed to the equivalent of 455,000 chest X rays, which increased their risk of contracting lung cancer by 13% to 14%. The Watrases immediately vacated the house. Two weeks ago, after the completion of a $32,000 PECO-sponsored cleanup operation, they moved back.
Stunned by the discovery, the bureau of radiation safety at the Pennsylvania environmental resources department dispatched half of its 25-person staff to the Boyertown area, where during the past five months they have tested 1,800 local dwellings for radon. Their finding: 40% of the homes have unacceptably high levels of the gas. Says Kay Jones, 40, who lives with her husband Richard and their children in a contaminated house across the street from the Watras': "Where am I going to go? Our life savings are in our home."
The problem, however, extends far beyond Boyertown. Says Bruce Dallas, spokesman for the environmental resources department: "We're just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of impact. Radon could be anywhere." The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a million American homes may be contaminated, and in May a federal interagency task force reported that indoor radon exposure may cause as many as 30,000 deaths from lung cancer in the U.S. every year.
Discovered in 1900, radon is produced by the radioactive decay of radium, which in turn is a product of the radioactive breakdown of uranium. The gas has long been recognized as a health threat to uranium miners, who suffer abnormally high rates of lung cancer. But as a gas, radon can flow for miles underground, often rising to the surface through faults and porous rock far from any source of uranium. In fact, the Watras house is located in a region called the Reading Prong, from which larger-than-normal quantities of radon rise. The region stretches from Reading, Pa., eastward across northern New Jersey and into New York State, High levels of indoor radon have also been found in Maine, New Hampshire, central Florida, Idaho, Montana, the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas, California and Washington State.