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Real-Time Global Radon Map

Airthings, a company specializing in digital radon detectors, recently launched RadonMap.com, a live global Radon map.  The map pulls constantly-updating Radon level data from Airthings’ devices all over North America, Europe ,and beyond to provide current localized analysis and advice – ideal for anyone looking to for the risks associated with radon exposure.

Facts about Radon

Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when the uranium in soil and rock breaks down. It is invisible, odourless and tasteless. When radon is released from the ground into the outdoor air, it is diluted and is not a concern. However, in enclosed spaces, like homes and offices, it can sometimes accumulate to high levels, which can be a risk to the health of the occupants of the building.

Radon gas breaks down or decays to form radioactive elements that can be inhaled into the lungs. In the lungs, decay continues, creating radioactive particles that release small bursts of energy. This energy is absorbed by nearby lung tissue, damaging the lung cells. When cells are damaged, they have the potential to result in cancer when they reproduce.

Exposure to high levels of radon in indoor air results in an increased risk of developing lung cancer. The risk of cancer depends on the level of radon and how long a person is exposed to those levels.

Exposure to radon and tobacco use together can significantly increase your risk of lung cancer. For example, if you are a lifelong smoker your risk of getting lung cancer is 1 in 10. If you add long term exposure to a high level of radon, your risk becomes 1 in 3. On the other hand, if you are a non-smoker, your lifetime lung cancer risk at the same high radon level is 1 in 20.

Radon Map

RadonMap.com aggregates radon level data from Airthings’ devices dispersed all over the world to provide accurate, local radon readings for users seeking current and reliable insight into the dangerous indoor gas and how much exposure they are subjected to daily.

Previously, gaining an understanding of localized Radon readings was only possible through professionally-administered tests or government data, offering a one-time snapshot rather than a constantly-evolving picture. With the introduction of the Airthings RadonMap.com, radon levels and fluctuations can be tracked accurately through a community of user-generated data. RadonMap.com instantly becomes a very reliable and up-to-date information source available for alerting the public about the presence of Radon in their environments and enabling them to take corrective action, if necessary, before a situation becomes critical.

About Airthings

Airthings is a Norwegian tech company that develops and manufactures both professional and consumer facing technology. These products include monitors for radon and other dangerous indoor air pollutants. The company was founded in 2008.

In Situ Treatment Performance Monitoring: Issues and Best Practices

The U.S. EPA recently released an issue paper (EPA 542-F-18-002) that describes how in situ treatment technologies may impact sampling and analysis results.  The paper discusses the best practices to identify and mitigate issues that may affect sampling and analysis.

The utility of monitoring wells for performance or attainment monitoring is based on the premise that contaminant concentrations measured in the wells are representative of aquifer conditions. However, during in situ treatment, various biogeochemical and hydrogeological processes and sampling and analysis procedures may affect the representativeness of the monitoring well and sample quality, which may not be adequately considered in current remediation practice.

A properly designed monitoring network that anticipates the distribution of amendments after injection would minimize impacts to monitoring wells.  However, predicting amendment distribution prior to injection is challenging such that impacts to monitoring wells are likely.

The purpose of The U.S. EPA issue paper is to:
• describe how in situ treatment technologies may impact sampling and analysis results used to monitor treatment performance; and
• provide best practices to identify and mitigate issues that may affect sampling or analysis.

The U.S. EPA issue  paper discusses eight potential sampling or analytical issues associated with groundwater monitoring at sites where in situ treatment technologies are applied. These issues are grouped under three topic areas:
• Issues related to monitoring wells (Section 2).
• Representativeness of monitoring wells (Section 3).
• Post-sampling artifacts (Section 4).

The paper presents issues that pertain to collecting water samples directly from a monitoring well and does not discuss the use of other sampling techniques, such as passive diffusion bags or direct push groundwater sampling.

US officials consider robots to prevent mine spills

As reported by the Associated Press, Crumbling mine tunnels awash with polluted waters perforate the Colorado mountains and scientists may one day send robots creeping through the pitch-black passages to study the mysterious currents that sometimes burst to the surface with devastating effects.

One such disaster happened at the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado in 2015, when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) accidentally triggered the release of 3 million gallons of mustard-colored water laden with arsenic, lead and other toxins. The spill tainted rivers in three states.

a man in a hard hat sprinkling lime (white power) into a pool of muddy water next to a culvert. Here, lime is added to a settling pond to assist in the pH adjustment of the water (Credit: Eric Vance/U.S. EPA)

Now the U.S. EPA is considering using robots and other sophisticated technology to help prevent these types of “blowouts” or clean them up if they happen. But first, the agency has to find out what’s inside the mines, some of which date to Colorado’s gold rush in the 1860s.

Wastewater laden with toxic heavy metals has been spewing from hundreds of inactive mines nationwide for decades, the product of complicated and sometimes poorly understood subterranean flows.

Mining creates tainted water in steps: Blasting out tunnels and processing ore exposes long-buried, sulfur-bearing rocks to oxygen. The sulfur and oxygen mix with natural underground water flows to create sulfuric acid. The acidic water then leaches heavy metals out of the rocks.

To manage and treat the wastewater, the U.S. EPA needs a clear idea of what’s inside the mines, some of which penetrate thousands of feet into the mountains. But many old mines are poorly documented.

Investigating with robots would be cheaper, faster and safer than humans.

“You can send a robot into an area that doesn’t have good air quality. You can send a robot into an area that doesn’t have much space,” said Rebecca Thomas, project manager for the U.S. EPA’s newly created Gold King Superfund site, officially known as the Bonita Peak Mining District.

Instruments on the robots could map the mines and analyze pollutants in the water.

They would look more like golf carts than the personable robots from “Star Wars” movies. Hao Zhang, an assistant professor of computer science at the Colorado School of Mines, envisions a battery-powered robot about 5 feet long with wheels or tracks to get through collapsing, rubble-strewn tunnels.

Zhang and a team of students demonstrated a smaller robot in a mine west of Denver recently. It purred smoothly along flat tunnel floors but toppled over trying to negotiate a cluttered passage.

“The terrain is pretty rough,” Zhang said. “It’s hard for even humans to navigate in that environment.”

A commercial robot modified to explore abandoned mines — including those swamped with acidic wastewater — could cost about $90,000 and take three to four years to develop, Zhang said.

Robot in underground mine (Photo Credit: Tatlana Flower/AP File)

Significant obstacles remain, including finding a way to operate remotely while deep inside a mine, beyond the reach of radio signals. One option is dropping signal-relay devices along the way so the robot stays in touch with operators. Another is designing an autonomous robot that could find its own way.

Researchers are also developing sophisticated computerized maps showing mines in three dimensions. The maps illustrate where the shafts intersect with natural faults and provide clues about how water courses through the mountains.

“It really helps us understand where we have certainty and where we have a lot of uncertainty about what we think is happening in the subsurface,” said Ian Bowen, a U.S. EPA hydrologist. “So it’s a wonderful, wonderful tool.”

The U.S. EPA also plans to drill into mines from the surface and lower instruments into the bore holes, measuring the depth, pressure and direction of underground water currents.

Tracing the currents is a challenge because they flow through multiple mines and surface debris. Many tunnels and faults are connected, so blocking one might send water out another.

“You put your finger in the dike here, where’s the water going to come out?” Thomas said.

Once the U.S. EPA finishes investigating, it will look at technologies for cleansing the wastewater.

Options range from traditional lime neutralization — which causes the heavy metals dissolved in the water to form particles and drop out — to more unusual techniques that involve introducing microbes.

The choice has consequences for taxpayers.  If no company is found financially responsible, the EPA pays the bill for about 10 years and then turns it over to the state.  Colorado currently pays about $1 million a year to operate a treatment plant at one Superfund mine. By 2028, it will pay about $5.7 million annually to operate plants at three mines, not including anything at the Bonita Peak site.

The U.S. EPA views the Colorado project as a chance for the government and entrepreneurs to take risks and try technology that might be useful elsewhere.

But the agency — already dealing with a distrustful public and critical politicians after triggering the Gold King spill — said any technology deployed in Colorado will be tested first and the public will have a chance to comment before decisions are made.

“We’re certainly not going to be in the position of making things worse,” Thomas said. “So when I say we want to take risks, we do, but we want to take calculated, educated risks and not worsen water quality.”

Phytoforensics: Using Trees to Find Contamination

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently prepared on Fact Sheet on how phytoforensics can be used to screen for contamination prior to traditional sampling methods.  Phytoforensics is a low cost, rapid sampling method that collects tree-core samples from the tree trunk to map the extent of contamination below the ground.

By utilizing phytoforensics, environmental professionals can save the cost and time associated with traditional methods of subsurface investigation – drilling boreholes, installing monitoring wells.

Scientists at the Missouri Water Science Center were among the first to use phytoforensics for contamination screening prior to employing traditional sampling methods, to guide additional sampling, and to show the large cost savings associated with tree sampling compared to traditional methods, to guide additional sampling, and to show the large cost savings associated with tree sampling compared to traditional methods.

The advantages of phytoforensics include the following: quickly screen sites for subsurface contamination; cost- and time-effective approach that uses pre-existing trees; non-invasive method (no drill rigs or heavy equipment required); and representative of large subsurface volumes.

Phytoforensics testing involves the collection of a tree-core sample with necessary sampling equipment including an incremental borer, forceps, a sample vial, and gloves.  Samples are collected at about 3 feet (1 metre) above ground surface, placed into vials for subsequent laboratory analysis.

Similar to phytoforensics, phytoremediation is the field of looking to use plants to mitigate environmental pollutants and human exposures. As plants are efficient, key components in local and global water, carbon and energy cycles, they can influence pollutant transport and availability in many different ways.

Dr. Joel Burken, Missouri S&T professor of civil and environmental engineering, tests a tree in Rolla’s Schuman Park with then high school senior Amanda Holmes and S&T graduate student Matt Limmer. Photo by B.A. Rupert