Ozone and Radon: The Real Story

Published December 1, 2006

This article is the seventh in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

A headline in September 2000 read, “Ozone hole over Antarctica unusually large, U.N. says.” The headline was false. Thinning of the ozone layer occurred perhaps one to two weeks earlier than normal, but no measurements had even been taken of the size of the area.

Who is held responsible for lying to the public–the United Nations weather agency, the news media, or both? The answer is, nobody is ever held responsible for such lies.

The story then pointed out, “Too much UV [ultraviolet] radiation can cause skin cancer and destroy tiny plants at the beginning of the food chain.” That claim has been repeated many times since the discovery of the ozone thinning process in the 1950s.

We are not talking about elevated levels of ground-level ozone occasionally found in large cities. This is about stratospheric ozone, a thin layer around the Earth that controls the amount of ultraviolet rays from the sun that reach the Earth. UV rays can cause non-malignant, superficial skin cancers on some persons.

Popular stories about ozone fail to mention the beneficial effect of UV radiation in metabolizing calcium into bone structures of land animals, including humans.

Ozone ‘Hole’ Inconsequential

The term ozone “hole” is a misnomer. What really happens is a thinning of the ozone layer. That thinning occurs naturally every year over polar regions during their winters.

Stratospheric ozone varies in area and thickness and floats around the polar regions as a result of prevailing air currents. The thinner area of ozone occasionally lies over scarcely or unpopulated land masses during the darkest and coldest months. When more sunlight and warmer temperatures return, ozone is replenished to normal thickness and density.

In 1987 in Earth in the Balance, Al Gore promoted the concept that chlorofluorocarbons were the main cause of ozone depletion in the stratosphere, and he pushed for adoption of a ban on CFCs by the United Nations. That was enthusiastically publicized by the U.S. news media. The New York Times went so far as to label opponents of the ban as “dissident scientists” and “conservative critics.”

That is exactly what is said today of global warming skeptics.

In the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the United Nations agreed with the Gore thesis and banned the manufacture of CFCs throughout the world. Given the lack of knowledge at the time, this was a rush to judgment that will likely be remembered as one of the most costly blunders ever.

Actual Effects Unknown

Even if chlorine is found to be the main culprit in destroying atmospheric ozone, what are the manmade contributions compared to natural sources?

Evaporation from the surface of the planet’s oceans puts 4,000 times more chlorine annually into the atmosphere than was produced by human beings in the form of CFCs.

Chlorine sent by volcanoes into the stratosphere dwarfs manmade contributions. The last eruption in Alaska added 570 times more chlorine in one year than all the human-produced CFCs produced in the world.

The most sophisticated apparatus available will never be able to detect a statistically significant change in ozone levels from a ban on all manmade sources.

The cost will grow even larger because replacement chemicals now available are more expensive and less safe.

What about the risk to humans from thinning of the ozone layer in the polar regions? There are no human inhabitants in Antarctica. There are relatively thin populations of Eskimos and native Indians in the polar regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. But since the thinning develops during the coldest months, people are bundled up in thick clothing and there is very little skin exposed to the sun.

Furthermore, the polar regions are the land of nearly complete darkness in winter. In the late fall and early spring, when the sun reappears, the angle of incidence of the rays is very low, thus ineffective.

The bottom line is, there is virtually no risk to humans from seasonal ozone thinning.

No Radon Link to Cancer

The radon scare, which peaked in 1988-1990, was generated by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that 8,000 to 43,000 Americans die from lung cancer each year from exposure in buildings to air polluted by radon.

Several prominent scientists took issue with the EPA estimates. Anthony Nero, an expert on indoor air pollution and a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, reported, “Everything is exaggerated–from the number of homes at risk to the individual’s risk from radon. I feel that, in this matter, the public has been led to worry about things of minor concern.”

Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh reviewed research conducted in Sweden, Finland, England, and China as well as in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He found no increase in lung cancer in people exposed to heightened radon levels. His most intensive study, using data derived from government and university reports of every county in the United States, appeared to show a correlation to reduced lung cancer where elevated radon levels occurred.

The late Warren Brookes, a journalist who worked diligently to become familiar with environmental issues, prepared an article in 1989 for Human Events, with the descriptive title, “Beware of EPA’s Flawed Radon-Cancer Connection.” He pointed out the U.S. radon standard is five times stricter than Canada’s, and he claimed the only real risk from radon appeared to be among uranium miners who smoke.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be downloaded at http://www.heartland.org/smokeorsteam.pdf.