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Radiat Prot Dosimetry. 2012 Nov;152(1-3):2-8. doi: 10.1093/rpd/ncs189. Epub 2012 Aug 22.

An historical overview of radon and its progeny: applications and health effects.

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  • 1School of Physics, University College Dublin, Dublin 4, Ireland.


Since its discovery by Dorn in 1900, studies of radon and its progeny have contributed to such diverse scientific fields as meteorology, geophysics, mineral exploration and radiation health effects. In addition to terrestrial scientific studies of radon, NASA missions in recent decades have yielded data on the behaviour of radon and its progeny on the Moon and on Mars. Radon has been used therapeutically for ∼100 y in the form of radon seeds for the irradiation of malignant tumours. It is, however, for its negative health effects that radon is better and more justifiably known. The causal role of radon and, in particular, its progeny in the elevated incidence of lung cancer in underground uranium miners was established in the 1950s. It is of historical interest to note that the fatal lung disease of silver miners in Saxony and Bohemia in the 16th century, was undoubtedly lung cancer caused by the high levels of radon in the mines. In recent decades there has been an ever-growing interest in the public health effects of exposure to radon in homes. Extensive radon epidemiological studies both of underground miners and of the general public in recent decades have quantified the lung cancer risks from radon exposure. Radon was classified in 1988 by International Agency for Research on Cancer as a human carcinogen and in 2009 the World Health Organization identified radon as the second cause of lung cancer globally after smoking. Radon control strategies are used by many governments to control and reduce the risk to public health from radon.

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