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Environmental Geology (1995) 26:32 38 9 Springer-Verlag 1995

F. Purtscheller 9 T. P i r c h l 9 G. Sieder 9 V. Stingl 9

T. Tessadri 9 P. Brunner 9 O. Ennemoser 9 P. Schneider

Radon emanation from giant landslides of Koefels (Tyrol, Austria)

and Langtang Himal (Nepal)

Received: 13 August 1994 / Accepted: 31 October 1994

Abstract The identification of extremely high indoor

radon concentrations in the village Umhausen (Tyrol, introduction
Austria) initiated a scientific program to get information
about the source and distribution of this noble gas. The Radon-222 is a naturally occurring radioactive noble gas
high concentrations can not be related to U anomalies originating from the decay of radium-226, which, in turn,
or large-scale fault zones. The nearby giant landslide of derives from the decay of uranium-238 in rocks and min-
Koefels, with its highly fractured and crushed orthogneis- erals. Radon and its decay products constitute a signifi-
ses, are the only possible source of radon, despite the fact cant health hazard in the indoor environment, especially
that the U and Ra content of the rocks is by no means concerning lung cancer mortality. Some of the metallic
exceptional. The reasons for the high emanation rates daughter products from the further decay of 2z2 Rn attach
from the landslide are discussed and compared to results to aerosols. Once inhaled, alpha radiation damages the
gained from a similar examination of the giant landslide tissue of the respiratory tract, and therefore the risk of
of Langtang Himal (Nepal). The exceptional geologic situ- lung cancer increases. Outdoors, radon escaping from the
ation in both cases, as well as the spatial distribution of soil is rapidly mixed with air, so that radon levels are
different concentration levels, indicate that both land- generally lower in outdoor air than in indoor air.
slides must be considered as the production sites of radon. Since 1991 the community of Umhausen in Tyrol (Aus-
Independent of the U and Ra contents of the rocks, the tria) (Fig. 1) has got involuntary publicity due to unusu-
most important factors producing high emanation rates ally high indoor radon concentrations causing a signifi-
are the production of a high active surface area and circu- cant increase in lung cancer mortality (Ennemoser and
lation pathways for Rn-enriched soil air by brittle defor- others 1993a). The current action level in Austria is 400
mation due to the impact of the landslidemass. Bq m -3. Systematic measurements in 390 houses revealed
basement radon concentrations greater than the action
Key words Radon 9Geochemistry 9Landslides 9Brittle level in 71~o of all dwellings in winter and in 33% in
deformation summer, the remarkable maximum value being 274,000
Bq m -3. Soil air activities gained from 40 field measuring
sites showed winter maxima up to 322,000 Bq/m 3. After
the identification of radon as the cause for the signifi-
cantly higher lung cancer mortality, the Tyrolean govern-
ment initiated a scientific program to get information
about the source and distribution of the noble gas and to
F. Purtscheller ([~) 9 T. Pirchl - G. Sieder - R. Tessadri test renovation measures.
Institut ffir Mineralogie & Petrographic, Universitiit Innsbruck, Extremely high Rn concentrations are generally con-
Innrain 52, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria
nected with uranium deposits or with highly sheared fault
V. Stingl zones. In the case of Umhausen, uranium deposits can be
Institut fiir Geologic & Pal~iontologie, Universit~it Innsbruck,
Innrain 52, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria ruled out as a source of radon. There is also no evidence
for large-scale tectonic sutures. The most outstanding
P. Brunner 9 P. Schneider
Institut fiir Analytische Chemic & Radiochemie, Universit~it geologic feature in the vicinity of Umhausen is the giant
Innsbruck, TempelstraBe 22, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria landslide of Koefels, with highly fractured and crushed
O. Ennemoser granitic gneisses. The distribution of high indoor and soil
Institut fiir Medizinische Physik, Miillerstral3e 44, Universitiit air action levels is compatible with the area covered by the
Innsbruck, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria landslide and the alluvial fan as its erosional product in

recent alluvium, scree

debris flow cones and fans
alluvial fan (river Oetztaler Ache)
,G2q alluvial fan (river Hairlachbach)
lake sediments
granodioritic gneisses
granitic and augen gneisses
paragneisses and micaschists

Fig. 1 a Geological map of the Oetz Valley around Umhausen In order to measure the radon concentration in the soil
(Tyrol, Austria); b Average Rn concentrations in basements of air, two traverses with 40 field measuring sites were in-
houses (note relation of high values to geologicalposition) stalled. They consist of 1-m-deep drill holes with capped,
perforated steel pipes. For measurement of the indoor and
front of it. The geological situation and the spatial distri- soil air radon concentration, charcoal liquid scintillation
bution of high and low radon concentrations led to the detectors were used. The nominal duration of measure-
assumption of the landslide being the primary source of ments was 48 h. Three detectors per site or measurement
the noble gas 222Rn. The only prevailing obvious connec- were installed. Because of the unusually high concentra-
tion between the landslide and radioactivity of spring wa- tions, five independent labs were invited to take random
ters in this region was suggested by Kriise (1940). Our samples. Two of these additionally involved labs used
hypothesis is tested on the comparable giant landslide of the same detectors, the other three alpha-track detectors.
the Tsergo Ri (Langtang Himal, Nepal). All measurements yielded very good agreement. Field
measurements in Umhausen were carried out with the
above-mentioned charcoal liquid scintillation detectors,
accompanied by alpha-track detectors. In the Langtang
Samples and methods landslide only alpha-tracks were used. For in situ mea-
surements of radon concentrations in the field we used
Besides detailed geological mapping of the region, 200 rock portable alpha-spectrometers.
samples were petrographically analyzed. The major and To determine the radium content of the rock samples,
trace element chemistry of 83 samples (21 elements) was the samples were pulverized and sealed within a can. Em-
examined using a combination of atomic absorption spec- anation was investigated gammaspectroscopically when
troscopy (AAS), inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy radioactive equilibrium was reached. The mean 226Ra
(ICP), and energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDXRFA). content of the samples was then calculated on the basis
The exact uranium concentrations are measured by of the equilibrium concentration of the 226Ra daughters
214Bi and 214pb.
means of fission track analysis. Mineral analyses and ele-
mental distributions on a microscale were carried out by
means of electron microprobe analysis (EMPA). Sedimen-
tological analyses of the erosional products (alluvial fans)
comprise sedimentary petrography and granulometric ex- The Koefels landslide
aminations to calculate the permeability of the soil and to
explain the spatial distribution of high and low indoor Umhausen is situated in the northern part of the Oetz
and soil air activity values. Valley in the Central Alps of Tyrol (Austria). A large bar-
Systematic recording of indoor radon concentrations rier (Maurachriegel), carrying the village Koefels on its
in 390 houses of Umhausen was based on voluntary par- western side and crossing the valley, rises immediately
ticipation of the householders. Measurements (basements south of the village, cut by the Maurach gorge of the
and ground floors) were sampled during some months in river Oetztaler Ache. The volume of this barrier reaches
winter and in summer. Additional monthly measurements 2-3 km 3 (Abele 1974). It became famous for the occur-
from January 1992 until April 1993 were made in 32 rep- rences of pumiceous rocks (Bimsstein), which were first
resentative houses. notid in the last century. These occurrences led to some

controversies concerning the genesis of the whole barrier.

Today an interpretation as giant mass movement sliding
down from the western side of the valley is generally ac-
cepted. The discussions only focus on the trigger for this
landslide. Some former authors favor a volcanogenic ori-
gin (Pichler 1863; Hammer 1924), while some more recent
geologists advocate a meteorite impact (Suess 1937; Stut-
zer 1937; Kurat and Richter 1972; Surenian 1988, 1993).
The simplest and most favorable theory seems to be that
of slope disintegration after retreat of the glaciers, possi-
bly accompanied by seismic activity (Stingl and others
The fused rocks show features indicative of high tem-
peratures, but none for extreme shock deformation (Laho-
dinsky and others 1993; Leroux and Doukhan 1993;
Lyons and others 1993). Preuss (1974) related it to fusion
processes on distinct internal shear planes of the landslide.
Erismann and others (1977) introduced the term "fric-
tionite" for these melting products. The pumiceous char-
acter only occurs on sliding planes rapidly exposed to the
surface, whereas in deeper parts without the possibility for
degassing, compact glass shards are present.
The age of the Koefels event is given by radiocarbon
dating of a wood fragment just at the base of the landslide
as 8710 _+ 150 yr (Heuberger and others 1984). Age deter-
minations by fission track dating yielded an age of about
8000 yr, which is in good agreement with the 14C age
(Storzer and others 1971).
The impact of the landslide mass with up to 600 m
thickness with the opposite steep slope not only caused
damming of the rivers Oetztaler Ache and the Hairlach-
bach, but also different intensities of fracturing. The basal
part suddenly stopped due to the impact, breaking up into
large blocks of granitic gneisses. Rotations and tilting be-
tween these blocks and between the blocks and the valley Fig. 2 Intensivelymylonitizedaugengneissfrom the Koefelsland-
slope resulted in intensive mylonitization in distinct zones slide. Height of the outcrop about 150 m. These realms are one of
the most important primaryproduction sites of radon
(Fig. 2). Within these mylonites, radon concentrations in
soil air of more than 15000 Bq m -3 were determined. The
surfaces of the blocks can sometimes be clearly identified place to place, culminating in complete mylonitization.
as reflectors in seismic profiles (Heuberger and Brfickl Steeply dipping, crosscutting, and partly open joint sets
1993). The part of the slide that was higher than the edge reveal good permeabilities and circulation pathways for
of the slope (ca. 1300 m) sheared off and traveled up the soil air. Therefore, the highest outdoor radon emanations
Hairlach valley for about 1 km. The lack of any barrier in the landslide area occur within the strongly fractured
led to blocky fragmentation without mylonitization. For gneiss blocks (up to 260,000 Bq m-3).
this reason, the surface of the landslide predominantly The main rock types constituting the landslide are
consists of m-sized gneiss blocks, some of which reach granitic gneisses and augengneisses. They crop out at the
dimensions of houses. mountain crest to the west, from whence the landslide
From the innumerable cavities of different size (up to originates. They are eoncordantly overlain by paragneisses
m size) between the blocks, one can clearly feel cool soil and some amphibolites, which are included in the land-
air currents in summer, coming out from the interior of slide only to a minor extent. The main mineralogical com-
the landslide and carrying significant amounts of radon. position shows no peculiarities. As accessories, apatite,
In winter, the same air currents are relatively warm com- zircon, futile, rare monazite, and ore phases occur. Small
pared to the outside air temperature. Cu and As (+ W) ore mineralizations are related to joints.
Measurements of joints, fissures and lineations in the Geochemical analyses of the orthogneisses and related
landslide material showed the same directions in relation rocks (mainly weathered orthogneisses) also show no spe-
to schistosity as in the bedrock, with only slight tilting of cial features except uranium content in a few samples
the total joint pattern in the landslide blocks. The only (Table 1). Granites and granodiorites commonly have an
difference is the substantially tighter sharing of the joints. average content of 2-3 ppm uranium (Carmichael 1990).
The intensity of fracturing in the landslide differs from Besides major and trace elements, the U content of 52

Table 1 Chemicalvariation (minimum-maximum) of orthog.n,eisses growths of apatite and monazite, both containing Th. By
and related rocks (mainly weathered ortho-rocks) from Otztal- quantitative energy-dispersive analyses ThO 2 contents of
K6fels (Tyrol, Austria) and pure orthogneisses from Langtang 10.2~o in monazite are determined. Apatites contain ThO2
Himal (Nepal)a
up to 0.5~o. UO2 in both cases is below the detection limit.
Otztal orthogneisses Langtang orthogneisses

Minimum Maximum Minimum Maximum

The Langtang landslide
SiO 2 68.22 77.83 70.88 73.69
A1203 9.02 14.83 14.65 15.93
Fe20 3 0.05 5.03 1.21 1.35 Since the classic paper by Scott and Drever (1953), the
MnO 0.01 0.11 0.01 0.02 Tsergo Ri landslide (Langtang Himal) is also a well-
MgO 0.09 4.31 0.41 0.50 known example of giant mass movements producing fused
CaO 0.12 2.35 1.30 1.55
Na20 0.14 4.62 3.26 3.63 rocks (hyalomylonite) at their sliding plane. It is situated
K20 2.19 5.19 4.70 5.58 in the upper Langtang Valley about 70 km north of Kath-
TiO 2 0.07 0.76 0.16 0.18 mandu, east of Langtang Lirung, the highest summit of
P2Os 0.09 0.59 0.12 0.14 Langtang Himal. The study area lies in the northern part
As 1 > 200 1 2
Ba 13 653 373 1005 of the High Himalayan Gneiss Sequence, north of the
Be 1.1 4.9 2.8 16.4 main central thrust, consisting of migmatitic granites and
Co 1 14 1 3 gneisses of the Kyangjin and Langshisa Units (Reddy and
Cr 1 66 3 8 others 1992). The age of the landslide event was assumed
Cu 5 1817 6 9
Ga 15 20 18 25 to be 25,000-30,000 years (Heuberger and others 1984).
Nb 3 26 3 8 Today, covering an area of about 14 km 2 (Masch and oth-
Ni 2 24 3 4 ers 1981; Heuberger and others 1984)--culminating in the
Pb 8 90 52 67 Tsergo Ri, 5032 m - - t h e visible volume is about 3 km 3.
Rb 65 1830 197 227
Sc 2 16 1 2 Estimations on the original volume gave maximum values
Sr 2 239 142 240 of about 15 km 3 (Masch and others 1981), the bulk of the
Th 1 25 9 11 landslide later being removed by glaciers.
U ! 65 3 23 Measurements with alpha-track detectors in the Tsergo
V 2 100 5 9 Ri area have shown that higher radon levels are in ac-
Y 3 43 13 16
Zn 2 1070 15 29 cordance with the distribution of the crushed migmatitic
Zr 11 277 70 89 granites and gneisses of the giant landslide (Purtscheller
and others 1994). These rocks normally show no extraor-
" Major elements as oxides; lretotal as Fe203; Trace elements in dinary uranium and radium contents (3-4 ppm U), with
ppm only local concentrations up to 23 ppm U occurring
(Table 1). In the basal part near the sliding plane, the high-
est degree of mylonitization occurs (Fig. 3). As depicted in
granitic gneisses of Umhausen was determined by the fis- Fig. 4, radon concentrations in soil air show a sudden
sion track method. Only about 20~o of the samples have increase from low values ( < 1 kBq m -3) below the sliding
slightly elevated contents above average, maximum values surface to 32.5 kBq m -3 immediately above the plane
reaching 65 ppm in a weathered orthogneiss. The slightly
elevated 226Ra median concentration of 125 Bq m -3 of
the granitic gneisses is by no means exceptional. Para-
gneisses of the region show significantly lower U concen-
trations than the granitic gneisses. Solution transport and
precipitation of small ore concentrations at the intersec-
tion of joint sets, always connected with limonitic crusts,
lead to locally elevated uranium concentrations. The
highest contents (5000 ppm) are measured in a weathering
residue from granitic gneisses with limonitic joints in the
Maurach gorge.
The only correlation of uranium with another element
was observed with phosphorus. A statistically significant
increase of U is accompanied by an increase in P20s in the
bulk chemistry of the granitic gneisses, while paragneisses
do not show this correlation. Therefore phosphates seem
to be the primary U minerals in the rocks of the land-
slide. Apatite is an abundant accessory mineral, and small
Fig. 3 Highly crushed and mylonitized migmatitic granites and
amounts of monazite also were identified. Element dis- gneisses at the Kyimshung crest west of Tsergo Ri, Langtang
tribution analyses by electron microprobe show inter- landslide

the prerequisites for strong emanation of radon. The highly

fractured to mylonitized rocks not only show a strong
increase of grain surface and porosity by grain comminu-
tion, but also some joint sets indicating former fluid flow
by small sulfide and limonite mineralizations. The last
are well known sites for secondary fixation of U and Ra
from solution (e.g., Gundersen 1991; Gundersen and
others 1992; Flexser and others 1993).
To test the influence of secondary processes on U dis-
tribution in rocks, eight samples from Umhausen were
analyzed for their U content in the core and rim zones of
the specimen. The reason for these additional analyses is
the assumption of a sampling effect. Most rock samples
Fig. 4 Three-dimensionalsketch of the Langtanglandslide(viewto taken in the field may break along discontinuities, which
the north) with part of the measuring sites. Rn concentrations in offer possibilities for solution transport and redistribu-
kBq m-3
tion. While the unweathered cores of the orthogneiss sam-
ples showed U contents between 2 and 12 ppm, the rims
of the same samples contained 4-65 ppm U. This zoning
(maximum values 71.8 kBq m-B). The high values are indicates a certain superposition of the normal U distribu-
compatible with the strongest grain comminution due to tion by secondary redistribution processes over very small
high shear stress and mylonitization at the base of the distances (Pirchl and others 1994).
landslide. The higher parts of the mass movement show, The bulk chemistry of the bedrock (granitic gneisses)
similar to the Koefels landslide, blocky fracturing and showed normal to slightly elevated concentrations of U
only local pulverization of the rock, resulting in minor and Ra. REE phosphates (monazite) and apatite seem
concentrations, but yielding good permeabilities for soil to be the most important primary phases carrying those
air circulation. elements. The almost complete mylonitization in some
places allows the easy escape of radon from mineral grains
into pore space by diffusion, whereas the higher part, with
its blocky fragmentation, provides permeabilities for soil
Discussion air circulation and convective transport, resulting in the
widespread spatial distribution.
The unusually high radon concentrations in Umhausen Measurements of radioactivity of springwaters origi-
cannot be related to features like uranium deposits or nating from the landslide and others from outside the
large-scale fault zones, the only described reasons for high mass movement (Kriise 1940) showed a close relation of
radon emanations (e.g., Israel and Bj6rnsson 1967; Steele high values (85 to >400 Bq 1-1) with the landslide mate-
and others 1982; Wilkening 1990; Gundersen 1991). The rial. Springs with low radon concentrations (< 20 Bq/1-x)
most important perrequisites for high Rn concentrations lie outside of it. Recent reexaminations of some of those
in soil air are uranium and radium contents, permeability springs confirm the old measurements.
of the soil or rock, and the possibility for high emanation Only Surbeck (1992) mentioned rock slides as impor-
rates, determined by a certain moisture content as one of tant factors regarding radon distribution, but solely re-
the most important factors (Gundersen and others 1992). lated to permeabilities and not as source. As there are no
Nearly all these factors are closely related to brittle defor- references concerning landslides as possible radon sources,
mation of the rocks. Mylonitization causes not only grain a comparison with a similar mass movement was neces-
comminution, but also shear zones with permeabilities for sary. The only comparable and well-known landslide in
fluids redistributing uranium or radium leached from the terms of volume, petrography and geochemistry, and frac-
wallrock to other levels. turing of the rocks is the Tsergo Ri landslide (Langtang
In the case of Umhausen, these factors have to be Himal). As pointed out above, petrographically it consists
assumed, although large tectonic sutures are lacking. As- of partly migmatitic granites and gneisses with only slightly
suming a fault zone below the valley fill to be responsible different chemical composition compared to the Koefels
for the high emanations rates, it is surprising that only a granitic gneisses. Internal structure also shows similarities
part of Umhausen is affected by this health hazard and no to the Alpine example. The highest degree of brittle de-
other communities in the Oetz valley are so affected. Ad- formation, resulting in complete mylonitization and the
ditionally, the valley fill consists of a nearly 200-m-thick combined with rock fusion, occurs at and near the base of
sedimentary pile (Heuberger and Brtickl 1993; Stingl and the slide. Higher parts show fragmentation into blocks
others 1993), which would require extremely strong soil and only local mylonitization between the blocks. This
air circulation from great depth to produce near-surface results in high radon soil air concentrations at the imme-
radon concentrations of such dimensions. For these rea- diate base, where emanation possibilities are best. Between
sons, other possible sources had to be found. The land- the blocks, circulation pathways exist and are responsible
slide of Koefels immediately neighboring Umhausen meets for further distribution throughout the landslide.

indoor radon concentrations from a giant rock slide. Sci Total

Conclusions Environ (in press)
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Gundersen LCS (1991) Radon in sheared metamorphic and igneous
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Acknowledgments We would like to thank L. Minach, Laboratorio Preuss E (1974) Der Bimsstein von K6fels im Otztal/Tirol, die
provinciale chimico, Bolzano, Italy, and G. Keller, Department of Reibungsschmelze eines Bergsturzes. Jahrb Ver Schutze Alpen-
Biophysics, University of Saarland, Hamburg, Germany, for coop- pflanzen Tiere 39 : 85-95
eration and discussions. We also thank V. Mair, Mineralogical In- Purtscheller F, Stingl V, Brunner P, and Ennemoser O (1994) The
stitute, University of Innsbruck, for his help in the field and for Tsergo Ri landslide (Langtang Himal)--a case study of radon
drawing the Langtang sketch J. Casta, Forschungszentrum Seibers- emanation from giant landslides. J Nepal Geol Soc 10:102-104
dorf, provided help with the U determinations. A. K. Satterley, Red@ SM, Searle MP, and Massey JA (1992) Structural evolution
School of Earth Sciences, University of Birmingham, improved the of the High Himalayan Gneiss sequence, Langtang Valley, Ne-
English text of parts of the manuscript. The work covers part of the pal. In: Treloar PJ and Searle MP (Eds), Himalayan Tectonics.
diploma thesis of T. Pirchl and G. Sieder and was partly financially Geological Society Special Publication 74:375-389
supported by the Tyrolean government. Scott JS and Drever HI (1953) Frictional fusion along a Himalayan
thrust. Proc R Soc Edinburgh Sect B 65 (part 2): 121-142
Semkov TM (1990) Recoil-emanation theory applied to radon re-
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