We all know that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. You may not be aware that the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. is exposure to radon. Radon gas can become trapped in your home and build up to dangerous levels. In 2005, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a Health Advisory warning about the health risks of radon and urged Americans to test their homes for its presence. Most Americans still don’t know much about this important public health issue, so I thought this might be a good topic for discussion.
What is radon?
Radon is a radioactive gas, which has no odor, no color, and no taste. It is extremely toxic in concentrated amounts. Radon comes from the decay of radium, which is present in almost all rock, soil, and water. The amount of radon in the soil depends on many factors, as does the amount of radon that escapes from the soil into the air. Radon can get into any type of building, but you and your family are most likely to get your greatest exposure at home, where you spend most of your time.
What are the adverse health effects of radon?
All major national and international organizations that have examined the health risks of radon agree that radon increases the risk of lung cancer in humans.
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer overall.
It is estimated to cause between 15,000 and 22,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the U.S.
For smokers, the risk of lung cancer is further increased by exposure to radon because of the synergistic effects of radon and smoking.
How does radon get into your house?
Radon typically moves up through the ground to the air above. It can enter your home through cracks and holes in the foundation. Radon coming from soil is the main cause of radon problems. Sometimes, radon can enter your home through well water. In some rare cases, building materials can release radon as well.
Any home can have a radon problem, including new or old homes, drafty or well-sealed homes, and homes with or without basements. Radon can be found all over the United States, although levels are higher in some areas than others.
How do you test for radon?
Testing is the only way to know if there is a high level of radon in your home. The EPA and the Surgeon General recommend testing all homes below the third floor for radon. The EPA also recommends testing in schools. Testing is very easy and inexpensive with kits that can be found online or in home improvement stores. Follow the directions on the package for proper testing and where to send the device after the test to find out your home’s radon level. There are discounted, or sometimes even free, test kits available. Use the link below for more information about that.
Can you fix a radon problem in your home?
If the radon level in your home is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher, the EPA considers that an unacceptable level, which requires action. The EPA has also been recommending for years that homeowners should consider fixing their homes when the radon level is between 2 and 4 pCi/L. The World Health Organization recommends the lowest acceptable level of radon be set at 2.7 pCI/L.
Although it is not feasible to totally eliminate radon from the air, there are radon reductions systems that can reduce radon levels in your home by as much as 99%. Even very high levels can be reduced to acceptable levels. For reference, the average indoor radon level is 1.3 pCi/L and the average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L.
If you are building a new home, your builder can incorporate radon-resistant features with very little additional cost. The house should still be tested for radon after occupancy.
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Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor