What is tasteless, colorless, and odorless and the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the United States? Radon. January is National Radon Action Month, a month designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action against radon. Radon exposure is a preventable health risk.
Local health departments (LHDs) can raise awareness about radon in the community and encourage radon testing for homes, schools, and other buildings during the January call to action. Furthermore, LHDs can provide technical assistance regarding radon and educate the community about the differences among testing devices and make recommendations about the most appropriate test for a person’s need and conditions. Below are some frequently asked questions about radon to help LHD staff address concerns from the community.
What is radon?
Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural decay of uranium in rocks and soil. Radon occurs naturally outdoors in all types of rocks and soils in harmless amounts, but can become concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Radon moves up through the ground to the air and into homes through cracks and holes in the foundation. Nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the United States is estimated to have elevated radon levels. Radon is not isolated to a certain geographical area or home type.
Why do you need to test for it?
Radon is the mean public exposure to ionizing radiation and accounts for approximately 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. Radon decays quickly, giving off tiny radioactive particles. When inhaled, these particles can damage cells that line the lungs either by creating free radicals or causing DNA breaks or damage. Long-term exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer.[1,2,3,4] Other adverse respiratory effects associated with chronic exposure to radon include emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic interstitial pneumonia, silicosis, and respiratory lesions. Exposure to radon and cigarette smoking are synergistic, meaning that the combined effect is greater than that of their independent effects.
How do you test for it?
The only way to know whether radon is a problem in your home is to test for it. The EPA urges testing if a home has not been tested for radon in the past two years. Radon testing and mitigation are easy and affordable activities that can significantly reduce the radon threat. Homes that are next door to each other can have different indoor radon levels; therefore, a neighbor’s radon test is a poor predictor of radon risk. You can test your home yourself through “do-it-yourself” radon test kits (available online and from local and state health departments and home improvement stores/centers) or hire a qualified radon test company.
How do you remediate it?
The EPA recommends taking action when the level of radon in a home is more than 4 picocuries per liter of air. There are simple solutions to fixing radon problems in homes. Some techniques prevent radon from entering the home and other techniques reduce radon levels after it has entered the home (i.e., subslab suction, drain-tile suction, sump-hole suction, block-wall suction, submembrane suction, sealing, home/room pressurization, heat recovery ventilation, and natural ventilation). Additionally, it is easy to build new homes radon-resistant. The EPA provides five basic techniques all builders should follow to prevent radon from entering a home.
More Radon Resources
- A Citizen’s Guide to Radon (EPA)
- Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction (EPA)
- Radon- Resistant New Construction (EPA)
- Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon (EPA)
- Handbook on Indoor Radon-A Public Health Perspective (World Health Organization)
- Radon Leaders Saving Lives (Radon Leaders)
- Alavanja MC, Lubin JH, Mahaffey JA, Brownson RC. Residential radon exposure and risk of lung cancer in Missouri. American Journal of Public Health 1999; 89(7):1042–1048. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10394313
- Darby S, Hill D, Doll R. Radon: a likely carcinogen at all exposures. Annals of Oncology 2001; 12(10):1341–1351. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11762803
- Field RW, Steck DJ, Smith BJ, et al. Residential radon gas exposure and lung cancer: the Iowa Radon Lung Cancer Study. American Journal of Epidemiology 2000; 151(11):1091–1102. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10873134
- Krewski D, Lubin JH, Zielinski JM, et al. A combined analysis of North American case-control studies of residential radon and lung cancer. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A 2006; 69(7):533–597. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16608828