Radon: Silent, but Deadly
Nearly every homeowner has encountered the term “radon” either during the selling or purchasing process. Homeowners have good reason to be aware of the potential presence of radon in their home, to test radon levels, and install radon ventilation systems if the radon levels are high. Many prospective home-buyers, however, choose to forgo radon testing prior to purchasing their new home, because they are uneducated or misinformed regarding what radon is and the detrimental long-term effects it can have on the health and vitality of their families.
What is Radon?
Radon is a naturally-occurring, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is highly radioactive and extremely dense (nine times more dense than air!). It was discovered in 1899-1900 by two European physicists, Ernest Rutherford and Friedrich Ernst Dorn. Although there are many forms of radon, Radon-222 is the type that occurs most frequently in the environment.
Radon can be highly concentrated in groundwater and in the ground under where a building is constructed; the ingestion of this contaminated water, and the inhalation of the radon particles released from this water, are the two primary ways in which people are exposed to this radioactive substance. As radon decays, the particles attach to microscopic airborne materials, like dust, which facilitates its inhalation by humans.
Because the primary source of radon is underground, buildings that have a below-ground component (basements, lower levels, etc.) or structures that exist solely underground (tunnels, caves, mines, etc.) and that have minimal fresh-air circulation, are at highest risk for elevated levels of radon and its decay products. Although the risk to habitants in a home without a finished basement is less than that to workers in an underground mine, radon, as a single atom gas, can easily penetrate paint, construction materials, and insulation, and still be a major cause of concern to families living in a radon-concentrated area.
Dangerously high levels of radon have been found in up to 8 million homes – at least 1 in 5 – throughout the United States; no area or region is untouched by the effects of radon.
Radon is a national environmental health problem. Elevated radon levels have been discovered in every state. The US EPA estimates that as many as 8 million homes throughout the country have elevated levels of radon. Current state surveys show that 1 home in 5 has elevated radon levels.
Radon Health Concerns
Lung cancer is a deadly form of cancer that claims the lives of 11 to 15 percent of its victims within five years of diagnosis. The cancer cells form in the tissues of the lung, generally in the cells lining air passages. Lung cancer is categorized by two types: small cell and non-small cell lung cancer; which type is determined by the look of the cells under a microscope. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2009, 219,440 Americans were diagnosed with lung cancer, and 159,390 died from it. For more information about lung cancer, visit the websites of the American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org), American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), and the National Cancer Institute (www.nci.nih.gov/).
Radon in our homes is the primary source of ionizing radiation to which most people are exposed. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as much as 15 percent of lung-cancer worldwide is caused by radon. In the United States, the Surgeon General has indicated that, after smoking, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer, killing approximately 21,000 Americans each year. Visit the WHO International Radon Project site for more information: www.whoint/ionizing_radiation/env/radon/en/index.html
There have been two studies, one in North America and one in Europe, that have demonstrated unequivocally the link between exposure to radon and increased risk of lung cancer. The research showed that radon is a carcinogen that, in long-term exposure to even low levels, can cause lung cancer. Read the University of Iowa press release about the North American study at:
Individuals that smoke – or are exposed to secondhand smoke – and also live in a home with high radon levels are at extremely high risk for developing lung cancer. According to the EPA, “a person who has never smoked…who is exposed to 1.3 pCi/L [a very low level of radon] has a 2 in 1,000 chance of lung cancer; while a smoker has a 20 in 1,000 chance of dying from lung cancer…. at 8 pCi/L the risk to smokers is six times the risk to never smokers.” (www.epa.gov/radon/healthrisks.html)
Because of children’s increased respiration rate and higher rate of cell division, they may be at higher risk of negative effects from the radiation in homes containing medium- or even low-levels of radon. However, there have been no research studies to date that have proven children to be at higher risk for radon-caused lung cancer than adults.
Radon Testing and Remediation
Due to the colorless, odorless, and tasteless nature of radon, there is no way to determine whether or not radon is present in a given location – let alone the degree to which it is concentrated – without conducting a radon test. Although radon is a primary cause of cancer and other serious health issues, it typically acts slowly, over a period of years, so by the time adverse health effects are noticed in one individual, everyone in the household has had significant long-term radon exposure.
There is no level of radon determined “safe” for human exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that a homeowner with greater than 2-4 pCi/L (pico Curies per Liter) of radon in their house should strongly consider fixing the problem.