Radon emerged as a health threat in the last five years as studies showed that exposure to high levels in the home can cause lung cancer. But many families move so often that it's difficult to determine their exposure over a lifetime.
Now, Battelle Memorial Institute scientists at the Energy Dept.'s Pacific Northwest Lab in Richland, Wash., have devised a clever way to do so. They tape a 2-inch-square piece of clear plastic polymer to the glass on an old mirror or framed picture. Such items as wedding photos are easily datable and normally carried from home to home. As radon decays over the years, it emits alpha particles, which embed themselves in glass. The particles leave tracks in the polymer. By analyzing these tracks, scientists can estimate a person's average annual exposure to indoor radon over 20 years or more. Starting in May, the technique will be used in a three-year National Cancer Institute study that examines radon, smoking, and diet as co-factors in the risk of lung cancer.