Energy. Environment. Economy.

Does Pennsylvania’s Shale Gas Have Too Much Radon In It?

It’s no secret many people in New York oppose fracking.

The latest concern from some New York City residents is that the shale gas they receive from Pennsylvania contains higher levels of radon — an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas, that’s responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths every year.

A group called Occupy the Pipeline recently produced a YouTube video about it, which has attracted more than half a million views.

The group opposes the Spectra pipeline, which is set to be completed next fall. It will carry shale gas from Pennsylvania and Ohio underneath New York City’s West Village.

So are higher radon levels a legitimate concern?

Michael Arthur, co-director of Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research says it’s a complex issue worth studying more.

“The problem is that radon can be produced with natural gas, especially from organic-rich units like the Marcellus Shale,” he says. “There haven’t been systematic studies of this yet. It’s difficult to get access [to pipelines] and sample.”

Arthur says indoor radon exposure from natural gas depends on all kinds of things like how long people leave their stoves on and how well-ventilated their buildings are.

As gas travels through pipelines, the concentration of radon declines. It’s half-life – or the time it takes the radon concentration to drop by half– is 3.8 days.

Arthur says it takes about 10 days for gas from Louisiana’s Henry Hub distribution site (where the gas has lower radon levels) to reach the Northeast.

“That trip is much shorter now because you’re going directly from Pennsylvania to New York City.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is looking into radon levels in natural gas as part of a year-long study it recently launched to examine radiation associated oil and gas production.

DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday says the agency doesn’t believe radon poses a serious risk.

“It’s one of the things we’re looking at in our study, but we don’t expect there to be much of an indoor air exposure issue.”

Meanwhile the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry trade group, says radon concerns are just the latest attempt at fear-mongering by fracking opponents.

“Their claims are unsupported by facts and science,” says MSC spokesman Travis Windle. “Those are absolutely outrageous claims by a small but vocal minority.”



  • TheProspector

    In reading your article, you have a claim that has no scientific basis, but you print it because sometime in the future there MAY be a scientific basis for it? Will you also print stories that the earth may be flat because some people believe that as well?

    • mariecusick


      I think the debate about the earth’s shape is settled. The significance of radon levels remains unsettled. Researchers at Penn State University and at the Department of Environmental Protection believe it’s at least worth investigating further.

  • Just The Facts
  • Paul Robert Roden

    The problem with radioactive radon is that when it decays, it is its decay product elements, mostly radioactive lead, that once injested from breathing it in, it enters the blood stream via the lungs and when it goes through the bones, becomes incorporated into bone tissue. This is where the damage is done. Radioactive lead is an alpha particle emitter. This low level radiation is what causes cancer and mutations. That is why this needs to be studied for its health effects. I haven’t heard of solar, wind, conservation, tidal, hydroelectric, hydrogen fuel cell and bio mass fuels leading to cancer or mutations in living things. How would you remove a colorless, odorless, inert noble gas from a natural gas flow? The natural gas industry continues to lie and dismiss the impact of radioactive radon, fracking fluids, accidents, explosions, storage, recycling and treatment of fracking waste water and drill cuttings. We have seen this before with nuclear power. We do not know the health impact and the full costs of extracting natural gas via fracking. That is why there should be a moratorium until the science can be studied, published and a policy decision made at least.

    • Science_not_rumor

      Have you ever seen how the “rare earth minerals” needed to produce the generators and solar panels are processed. The environmental devastation and worker conditions are deplorable. NO energy comes without consequence. Only conservation has little effects.

      • Science_not_tumor

        Nice straw-man there. . . What is your actual position on this subject? Are you against REM mining? Or just solar panels and generators? Or are you just *championing* conservation? In the words of Chuckie Sullivan, “You’re suspect.”

        Rare earth mineral mining doesn’t pump radioactive gas into your home or say a densely packed city. Yes, it as with all types of mining, by definition destroy the environment. This situation is a bit different. REM mining usually won’t spread its contaminants very far. Natural gas is piped ALL OVER COUNTRY. Radon may have a short half-life but as Paul pointed out, it doesn’t become magically non-radioactive. It’s decay products precipitate out of the gaseous Radon and form into small dust-like particles, dangerous radioactive dust particles.

        I would almost be tempted to compare the potential dangers of fracking to asbestos. We found that asbestos had amazing fire resistant properties and set about installing it everywhere with the best of intentions. Now with so many incidences of lung cancer due to asbestos exposure, could we honestly say that it was worth it to skimp on the science?

      • gt6

        The difference there is that solar panels on your roof do not spread the radioactive elements inside the house. Radon gas and its byproducts are piped directly into the home.

  • Reality Please

    This article could have be written without giving a plug to a bunch of anti-gas drilling activists who are purposefully and knowingly using disinformation to scare people. “Fracked gas”? As opposed to the “fracked” oil that heats their apartment buildings and powers their cars? How much radon, benzene, VOC’s, particulate matter, etc. do these folks breathe in every day from the millions of cars, trucks, buses on the roads of their condensed city?

    It used to be that StateImpact was a refreshing reprieve from such garbage. A site where the science and facts ruled the day, where hysteria-screaming activists were not an obligatory counterpoint. A site where you could come to gain context and filter out the normal crappy media coverage.

    • mariecusick

      We see it as fact-checking a claim some may find outlandish. The reply from scientists at Penn State and the state DEP is that it’s at least worth looking into further and not much research has been done.

      • PipelineEngineer

        Unfortunately Penn State has been one of the leading Marcellus cheerleaders, and PA DEP is controlled by industry partisans. Neither of these can reasonably considered neutral voices.

        • alg0rhythm

          making their input to say further research is needed more valid, as they would likely have the opposite interest.

  • JimBarth

    The people who object to this article, and, who mock those that call for research into the matter, are really the people who, at the time, would have believed the earth was flat, if it suited them, and would have called for the Catholic Inquisition to torture those who believed the earth was round, or, that it revolved around the sun.

    These industry apologists say there is no science to prove anything negative, and yet, they oppose scientific exploration of the issues?

    They must be very afraid, and, they should be.

  • Debbie Lambert

    Remember, this is the same DEP that promoted the gas industry claims that not one well was damaged by gas drilling and were debunked by some curious journalists in an article published just yesterday.

    If I heated with gas, I would switch now anyway. When they start shipping it to Japan and China, the prices will skyrocket and they same proponents will be screaming for a cheaper and renewable alternative, so let’s just all skip that step and all the devastation and start using renewbles now!!!

  • RPSiegel

    Radon has been present in natural gas for a long time, but since the gas was mostly used in furnaces and hot water heaters, which are always vented outdoors, this was not considered a serious health risk. Now that more people are cooking with gas stoves, which are often unvented, and homes have become increasingly airtight, this is becoming more of issue. It is increasingly important to be sure that your gas stove is vented outdoor with a properly installed fan or a hood.

    • duchessofnyc

      Most stoves in NYC apartments are not vented. Is that taken into account in these industry studies?

  • John E Cunningham

    Lets not forget that Radon is part of the overall Radiation Depletion process, So lets not over complicate this and start with Uranium (which is in the Marcellus Black Shale) Lets go for Radium and the fact that it’s half life is 1602.689 DAYS, And is also found in abundant supply in BLACK SHALE, It can travel around the world a few times and then show up at your house as fresh Radon.
    As far as access to measuring at the well head and calculating pressures and time in pipes to get to your house, and stainless containers at zero vacuum, and ventilated 9 times to get a good sample 19 times. Do the testing in peoples homes I’m sure we could find a few volunteer’s and some Geiger Counters.
    “OH YA” and pay for a year long study (How many more wells will be drilled) at who’s expense (while people are still breathing RADIOACTIVITY).
    It’s all RADIOACTIVITY that’s allowed to enter your home (not just RADON) accumulated and spread through out by attaching to Natural Gases Soot (smaller than 2.5 microns) small enough to get into not only your families Small Airways but spread through your house and land on carpets and furniture ETC. ETC. that your babies drop their pacifiers’ on or fingers and then put in their mouths.
    Lets not forget that RADON depletes after 37.689 days to LEAD, Gee where has Lead been heard before, acceptable limit is “ZERO”
    Not supported by science, Try 8 th. grade, The Marcellus Black Shale has 100′s to 1,000′s of X’s more RADIATION than the mid west shale we’ve been receiving with radiation for decades and the Gas Co’s have known it !!!!!!!!!!!!
    “OH-YA” our gas is lased with the misting of PCB’s by the Gas Co’s spraying oil into all 250,000,000.689 miles of gas lines in the US. 50 – 60 – 70 years ago to prevent corrosion from the inside with wet gas, Circa 1990 CA. vs Gas Co’s. CALAFORNIA WON – - 10,000 miles of pipe was replaced, but nothing has been done about the rest of the country, “OH-YA” when burning PCB’s at below 1826 degrees it of gases DIOXIN, ust figured someone might want to know that little LOOK IT UP TID BIT. THANX jc.

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