According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Surprising? Had I’d ever been asked about the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, I would have guessed secondhand smoke. Moreover, for lung cancer, smoking is the leading cause, but radon is the second leading cause, and secondhand smoke is the third.
Radon is also potentially linked to developing childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (“ALL”), according to recent research. The study found that children exposed to “intermediate” levels of radon had a 21% higher risk of developing ALL as compared to children exposed to the lowest levels. Children exposed to the highest levels of radon relative to those with the least exposure had a 63% greater risk of developing ALL.
Although radon – a radioactive gas – sounds scary, it is one of the easiest environmental exposures in our homes to address. You can readily test for it in your home, and eliminating or significantly reducing the exposure is pretty easy.
Radon is a gas and escapes rocks and soils. While it isn’t a problem in outdoor air because it readily disperses, it can be a problem in homes.
But radon in homes can be a problem. Radon enters your home through cracks, utility entries, seams, and other openings in your home’s foundation, and from uncovered soil in crawl spaces. It can build up to unhealthy levels. Since it is heavy, it can accumulate in basements or at the floor level.
Radon is odorless and colorless. It has been called the silent killer. Not only are there no signs that radon is present in your home, there are no signs that you are being exposed. And, 1 out of 15 homes have radon levels above the EPA’s recommended radon action level of 4 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) of air.
Radon gas decays. When radon decays, small radioactive particles are released. If you inhale radon (or the particles), once in the lungs, the tiny particles damage the cells that line the lung. These particles release small burst of energy as they decay. These small bursts of ionizing radiation can affect DNA, leading to mutations that may turn cancerous. The latency period for developing lung cancer from radon exposure is twenty to thirty years.
The increased risk of lung cancer from radon exposure is greater if you smoke. But even if you don’t smoke, elevated concentrations of radon in the home pose a fairly significant increased risk of cancer. For a home with 4 pCi/L, the lifetime risk of cancer is 7.3 out of 1,000 persons. That is really high, surprisingly high, especially when you compare it with the 1 in 1,000,000 risk factor generally used to regulate contaminants in our environment.
|Radon Level (pCi/L)||Non-Smokers (Never Smoked)||Smokers|
|8||15 out of 1,000||120 out of 1,000|
|4||7.3 out of 1,000||62 out of 1,000|
|2||3.7 out of 1,000||32 out of 1,000|
So, how do you reduce your exposure and risk from radon?
Test Your Home. You can purchase an inexpensive do-it-yourself kit from hardware stores or online. Short term and long term tests kits exist. Many states offer free test kits for their residents. If you buy a kit from a hardware store or online, make sure the test kit is state-certified. A study by Consumer Reports found long term tests more reliable than short term test kits.
Fix Any Radon Problem. If the testing determines that radon levels are elevated in your home, then fix the problem. Radon reduction systems can reduce radon levels in your home by as much as 99%. EPA recommends that you reduce your radon level if your current radon level exceeds 4 pCi/L. (For reference, the EPA’s standard of 4 pCi/L is equal to 0.016 working levels, also used in the industry.) EPA recommends fixing your home if one long term test, or two short term tests, show radon concentration levels above 4 pCi/L. However, there is no safe level of radon established. EPA also recommends that you consider fixing your home if the radon level detected is above 2 pCi/L. If you have a radon problem and you decide to fix it, check out the EPA’s Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction.