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I Am a Radon Daughter

My father was a geologist in Utah’s uranium mines. He died young of lung cancer; a uranium miner’s death from workplace air pollution. I am a radon daughter.

In the 1950s, Utah was a major producer of uranium ore. Miners, engineers, and geologists worked underground in what were known to be unsafe conditions. The combination of uranium dust and radon in the mines were known to cause lung cancer, and recommendations were made for mines to be ventilated and for miners to wear protective masks. Radon gas itself is not toxic, but as it breaks down it creates radioactive “daughters” that are the health risk. Ventilating mines would decrease the concentration of radon and masks might filter uranium dust, but ventilating the mines was expensive and masks were uncomfortable. The mining companies didn’t ventilate adequately or require protection. Public health physicians tried to change the working conditions but the push back from the industry was that it was too hard and too expensive. The miners didn’t die underground immediately. They died later. My father died about 15 years after he was a young geologist in the mines, leaving my mother and my young sisters and brothers. I am a radon daughter.

I think now about ozone and small particles in air pollution. I live in a geologic bowl that collects toxic gasses and particles and there is no man-made fan that will blow it clear. I live in Salt Lake City.

I have spent my career at the University of Utah practicing and teaching as an obstetrician/gynecologist and fertility specialist. Understandably I am rather sensitive about air pollution issues. I feel that Utah is doing the same old thing with different air. When evidence that high levels of ozone and small particulates in the air can contribute to early death from heart disease and stroke, advance cognitive decline, and aggravate pulmonary disease, we hear push back that it is too expensive to enforce changes; it is up to individuals to take responsibility. When there is evidence in Utah that poor air quality contributes to premature birth and infertility we hear reasons why incentives for cleaner vehicles and gasoline cannot be advanced. When there is evidence that high ozone levels contribute to the risk of stillbirths . . . whose personal responsibility can be called to task?

I am reminded about the lesson I learned in seventh grade social studies about the “tragedy of the commons.” When there is a defined resource that everyone must share, what happen if a few—or if everyone—overuses it? Or pollutes it? It no longer becomes a resource for all men, women, and children. This is the story of our airshed along the Wasatch Front, the Wasatch back, and the Uinta Basin. I understand the principle of personal rights to burn wood in a fireplace, to drive a poorly regulated diesel truck, or to make a profit from the oil and gas industry. But where is my right to breathe? Where are my patients’ rights to provide an environment for a healthy pregnancy? Your right to burn in your fireplace, to burn in an industrial plant, or to run an unnecessarily polluting car ends at the top of your chimney, smokestack, and tailpipe. My right to breathe begins in the air immediately around me. In between your chimney, smokestack, or tailpipe and my airspace is the common ground of the air that we all share. We know the risks, and we know how to regulate and enforce regulations to clean up our air. It is NOT too expensive. The alternatives are too expensive. I am a radon daughter.


Kirtly Parker Jones is Professor Emerita at the University of Utah. Her clinical and research interests include family planning, advanced reproductive technology, and menopause. Dr. Jones shares her life and interests in the environment and the health of the planet with her husband and partner of 40 years, Chris Jones MD, PhD. b. 1951

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