The connection between lung disease and radon was first discovered in the 1400’s in the Eastern European mountain area, now known as Austria. Miners developed what Swiss physician Paraclesus called mala metallorum or “wasting disease”. In the 1800’s, German scientists Herting and Hesse identified this mountain sickness as lung cancer. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that additional studies of miners concluded that the inhalation of RDPs caused lung cancer in miners and others exposed to radon.
In the late 1960’s, homes with elevated indoor radon concentrations were discovered in the United States. These elevated radon levels were attributed to the use of building materials contaminated with radioactivity such as vanadium and uranium mill tailings, high uranium content concrete, or wallboard constructed with phosphogypsum.
In the 1980’s, the potential threat to the public health posed by naturally occurring radon became a major concern with the discovery of homes with extremely high radon levels (more than 3,000 pCi/L) on the Reading Prong, a uranium-bearing formation that extends through eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey and southern New York.
To inform and protect U.S. citizens, the Indoor Radon Abatement Act was signed into United States law in 1988. The act established a long-term goal that indoor air be as free from radon as the ambient air outside buildings. The law authorizes $45 million over the next three years for radon-related activities at the state and federal levels.
The 1990’s brought about great change in the history of research, oversight and dissemination of radon information in the United States. In 1995, the EPA relinquished administrative oversight of the program to private organizations and individual states. In 2005, The World Health Organization (WHO) established the International Radon Project. Scientists and radon information partners from 30 countries partnered together to identify effective strategies for reducing residential radon exposure and emphasizing its impact from a public health perspective. This collaboration developed recommendations on radon reduction and mitigation as well as policy options for partners developing national radon programs.
Although some states have self-regulated, many states have minimal, if any, requirements for radon professionals. Oversight of unregulated states typically falls to privatized organizations, primarily subsidized by federal grant dollars.