Protection against radiating particles: A large part of the radioactive radiation exposure caused by radon can be avoided by wearing medical masks, as a study shows. According to this, FFP2 and surgical masks do not filter the noble gas radon itself from the air, but they do filter its short-lived decay products, which are responsible for 90 percent of the harmful effects on the lungs. For these radon products, the filter effect of the masks is up to 98 percent.

Radon is formed when radioactive rock components such as uranium and thorium decay underground. Rising radon gas is responsible for around half of the radioactive background pollution from natural sources in Germany. Radon levels are particularly high in granite-rich regions. In poorly ventilated indoor spaces, the radon can then reach concentrations that are potentially harmful to health.

When radon gas is inhaled, the radioactive element usually decays in the airways and releases various decay products, including radioactive isotopes of lead, polonium and bismuth. These accumulate on aerosols in the breathing air and on the lung tissue.

These decomposition products also occur in the room air. It is estimated that they are responsible for more than 95 percent of the total effective dose of radon exposure.

If you are exposed to this exposure for a long time, the ionizing radiation generated by these particles can lead to DNA damage in the cells and thus promote the development of lung cancer. As a remedy, special ventilation systems and air filters are usually installed in buildings with increased radon levels.

Annika Hinrichs and her colleagues from the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt wanted to know whether a simpler, personal protection method against inhaling the radon could also help.

According to the motto: what helps against the corona virus could also help against radon, the researchers examined the filter effect of FFP2 and surgical masks against radon and its decay products. To do this, they placed special measuring heads with and without a mask in a test chamber and exposed them to defined radon levels.

The result: the medical masks had little effect against the radon gas itself, but they did work against its larger decay products, mostly attached to aerosols. Depending on the humidity and the size of the particles, the FFP2 masks retained between 85.2 and 98.9 percent of the radioactive decay products. With the surgical masks, it was still 79.5 to 98.4 percent. “Face masks can therefore be very effective in reducing radioactive exposure,” the scientists state.

Medical masks can therefore represent a simple and inexpensive method of protection for people who are exposed to increased levels of radon. This applies in particular to people who work in radon tunnels or radon baths. The air containing radon is used there as a therapy against inflammation and pain, for example in the case of rheumatism, neurodermatitis and other chronic inflammatory diseases. (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2022; doi: 10.3390/ijerph191811337)

Source: GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research

This article was written by Nadja Podbregar

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