Radon, is it really a serious threat to health?
Yes, radon is a serious health hazard. It is a radioactive substance that comes from uranium and thorium in the rocks and soil of the earth. It leaks from the ground and into the air at the soil-air junction such as in basements. Radon quickly breaks down and attaches to air and water particles, making it easy to inhale. These particles, radon progeny, stay in the lung, emitting radiation and causing damage that can lead to cancer (from “Radon Action Month: Why Nurses Should care about Radon Exposure,” by P. Allen, et al, Tar Heel Nurse, Winter, 2015).
Because radon primarily gets into the body through inhalation, it isn’t surprising that lung cancer is the main disease it has been linked to and is the only one officially identified by the CDC (EPA, 2015). Because it is naturally occurring, odorless, and colorless, people rarely suspect its presence. An estimated 15% of lung cancer deaths are believed to be caused by it and it is the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. It is the leading preventable cause of death and decreasing it in buildings could save more lives than efforts to eliminate home fires, fall prevention and drownings, not to take away from these important measures (from J. Worrell, et al, “Radon Exposure: Using the Spectrum of Prevention Framework to Increase Health Care Provider Awareness,” in Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, Dec. 2016).
Kits to measure radon levels are available at home improvement stores but in some areas, kits are offered at reduced cost through the state’s radon detection program or health departments. The kits should be placed at the lowest level where people live. For a reading of 4.0 pCi/L or greater, a mitigation system can be installed to vent the radon to outdoor air, where it is quickly diluted and no threat. Radon should be measured every few years if the level is above two or if a mitigation system is installed (American Family Physician, Audio Digest for December, 2017).
Radon can be found all over the world. In the U.S., parts of the Midwest have high rates, as does Kentucky, and the northeast. Portions of the West near fault lines may have radon problems too. The only way to really know is to use a kit to measure it. There is great variability even from one house to the next due to difference in building materials, environment, etc. Also, the U.S. population is quite mobile so current exposure doesn’t indicate lifetime risk.
Smoking is still the number one risk for lung cancer in smokers and even thought radon is the main cause in non-smokers, it is important to understand that there is a ten to twenty-fold greater risk of lung cancer from radon for smokers compared to non-smokers (Worrell, et al, 2016). To put it another way, the EPA estimates that 86% of radon-induced lung cancer deaths are found among current and former smokers (from Editorial Letters in the American Journal of Public Health, Sept. 2013, Volume 103, #9.