You are not a smoker, and you live in an environment that is free from any secondhand smoke. Lung cancer is not a real concern for you then, right?
Wrong. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns smokers and non-smokers alike that something else in our homes may be causing an imminent threat to our lungs. Although smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, causing approximately 160,000 deaths annually in the U.S., radon is a silent source of danger, even beating out the number of deaths caused by secondhand smoke.
|image from unce.unr.edu|
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, accounting for about 21,000 U.S. deaths annually. This statistic greatly overshadows the 3,000 annual deaths caused by secondhand smoke. Furthermore, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. That is why January is National Radon Action Month.
Do you still think you have nothing to worry about? Whatever this “radon” thing is, you certainly would know if you were being exposed to it, right?
Still wrong. According to the EPA, radon is a colorless, odorless gas produced when naturally occurring uranium decays into soil and water across the entire world. It is a type of ionizing radiation and a documented carcinogen, and the American Cancer Society says that dangerous levels of it are found in every state across the country.
Although it is found outdoors in air and drinking water from lakes and rivers, the highest radon levels are found indoors and in underground sources of water. These levels of radon vary based on the composition of local rocks and soil. When the radon gas leaves the Earth, it can come into your home, work, school, or any commercial area through the floor, a wall, and foundation cracks. The highest levels of indoor radon gas are typically found in basements and crawl spaces because they are closest to the ground. For this reason, living or working in a basement for an extended period of time poses a higher risk.
So how does something naturally found in the soil become a dangerous radioactive gas? As radon decays, it breaks down into solid radioactive elements known as radon progeny. This material attaches to particles, like dust, which are then inhaled directly into the lungs. As radon and radon progeny decompose, they emit alpha particles. The effect of radiation from these particles is damage to the DNA in our bodies’ cells.
This very process could be happening right now inside your home. The EPA estimates that nearly 1 out of every 15 U.S. homes have elevated radon levels. These levels are measured by units of radioactivity per volume of air, most commonly in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The common misconception is that a radon level lower than 4 pCi/L is safe. Although that is the standard level at which action needs to be taken to reduce radon, a level from 2-4 PCi/L is not ideal, either.
|Make radon safety a priority by testing your home|
with a radon test kit.
Image from: National Cancer Institute
If radon is found to be high in your home, you should take steps to reduce your exposure. The solutions to high radon levels include sealing any cracks in your floors, walls, or foundation, or improving the ventilation in your home through a process called “sub-slab depressurization” that uses pipes and fans. The EPA advises that only a qualified contractor should attempt to make these changes because specific technical knowledge, skills, and equipment are required. Trying to fix the radon levels on your own could make the problem worse and result in additional expenses and a higher risk. Recommended professionals can be contacted through state radon offices on the EPA website. Whichever options you find more convenient for testing and correction, be sure to take some form of preventative action. Make radon safety a priority in your home.