On Your Health

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What is Radon? How Is It Linked to Lung Cancer?

Since November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a good time to talk some facts. An estimated 228,000 new cases of lung cancer will develop in the U.S. by the time the 2019 calendar year is over, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer diagnoses account for 13 percent of all new cancers.

Typically, we associate lung cancer with smoking or second-hand smoke. However, there’s another common risk factor, one that may not come to mind when you think of the deadly disease whose five-year survival rates hover only between 11-15 percent.

Radon exposure is the top cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. The EPA estimates radon causes more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year, the number two contributor behind smoking.

Although radon is a hazard, the solutions are simple to avoid developing serious health risks. We’ll outline what radon is, how you can test for it, and what you can do to prevent and alleviate radon issues.

What is radon?

Radon is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless radioactive gas that forms as a result of uranium decaying in rock, soil, and water. Testing for it is the only way of telling how much is present.

While radon isn’t a risk outdoors since the air can dilute it, it becomes deadly when trapped inside buildings. Radon breaks down, emitting atomic particles that can alter cell DNA once inhaled. The result is an increased risk of lung cancer.

Radon issues aren’t limited to your house. In fact, the EPA estimates more than 70,000 schoolrooms have high short-term radon levels.

Radon exposure can come from drinking water, too. The gas dissolves in groundwater and enters your house when it’s released into the air during common household tasks like washing dishes or using water to cook. Surface water from a river, lake, or reservoir isn’t at risk for radon.

High radon levels come from the soil surrounding your house. The gas enters through cracks and openings, putting older homes at risk for higher levels of radon. If the air pressure of a house is lower than the soil, a vacuum effect allows radon gas to come inside. You’ll find radon levels higher in basements and first floors of homes due to their proximity to the ground.

The risk of lung cancer from radon

Although anyone exposed to radon has a small risk of getting lung cancer, there are several factors that can increase your risk. They range from the amount of radon in your home and the amount of time you spend in your home to if you’re a smoker or burn other substances (wood, coal) that add particles to the air.

For example, a smoker exposed to radon levels of 4 pCi/L during his or her lifetime would result in lung cancer 6.2 percent of the time compared to 0.7 percent of the time for nonsmokers.

How to test for heightened radon levels

The EPA estimates 1 in 15 U.S. homes has radon levels at or above the threshold. Studies show lowering radon levels can reduce 5,000 lung cancer deaths.

The good news is it takes years of constant radon exposure to develop health risks. That’s why it is so important to test your house for radon now to get ahead of any potential problems.

You can find radon test kits online or at your local hardware or home improvement store. Some states also offer free or discounted kits. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality offers free radon test kits to residents.

Additionally, The National Radon Program Services sells inexpensive radon test kits. The kits cost either $15 for a short-term test or $25 for a long-term test. The short-term test kit collects data for 2-4 days. A long-term test kit lasts 3-12 months. With either test, you send the kit back to the manufacturer at no charge. Long-term tests are preferred due to accuracy.

* THIS IS IMPORTANT: The CDC warns that you should fix houses with radon levels greater than 4 pCi/L. Levels between 2 and 3.9 pCi/L are considered higher than average and you should consider fixing if your level falls in that range. Anything below that is average.

Preventing and alleviating radon exposure

Now that you’re aware of radon, what are the next steps? In 2015, the EPA introduced the National Radon Action Plan to help reduce radon risk. Since its inception, the plan has helped decrease levels in five million homes and will end up saving 3,200 lives annually by 2020.

For starters, be aware of radon when you make your next move to a new neighborhood or when you build a new house. The EPA has a handy map to see which areas in each state are more prone to radon exposure. In Oklahoma, Zone 3 makes up most of the state, with predicted indoor radon screening levels less than 2 pCi/L. However, several counties in northeast Oklahoma and northwest Oklahoma fall in Zone 2, which are counties with predicted average indoor radon screening levels from 2 to 4 pCi/L. 

*THIS IS IMPORTANT: The EPA reminds us that levels can vary even by neighborhood. No two houses are the same, so they recommend every household conduct testing.

For a new home, ask your contractor to use radon-resistance features. The up-front costs are minimal, as the EPA estimates they run between $250 and $750. Compare this to the ultimate cost of possibly developing lung cancer, and the decision is easy to be proactive. Radon-resistant home building includes:

  • Gas permeable layer - Contractors place a layer of gravel under the slab or floor so gas can move more freely. You won’t be able to use this in houses with a crawlspace.
  • Plastic sheeting - This goes on the gravel to help soil gas from entering the home.
  • Sealing and caulking - This reduces the ability of soil gas to enter the home.

  • Vent pipe - A gas-tight or PVC pipe runs from the base of your house to the roof, allowing radon and other gases to escape.
  • Junction box - By installing this in your attic, it’s easier to hook up a vent so radon isn’t trapped in your home.

In the event your current house tests high for elevated levels of radon, some fixes could be DIY, including sealing and caulking cracks in the foundation, improving your home’s natural ventilation and creating room pressurization with fans. 

However, the EPA recommends that you have a qualified radon mitigation contractor fix your home because it may need a radon mitigation system installed. A radon mitigation system consists of a vent pipe, fan and the proper sealing of cracks. This system collects radon gas from underneath the foundation and vents it to the outside of your home.

Contact your state radon office for a list of licensed radon mitigation professionals in your area. Detailed information about radon reduction in your home or building can be found in the EPA's Consumer's Guide to Radon Reduction.