What is Radon
, why does it matter and what can you do about it?
Could Your Home Be Giving You Lung Cancer?
Cracks inside the walls and floors of your home can allow radioactive radon gas to creep inside and affect your air quality and health.
Exposure to radon gas, which can seep through cracks in the walls and floors of your home, increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
The second-leading cause of lung cancer could be hiding inside your own home.
Radon — an odorless, colorless, naturally occurring radioactive gas — is inhaled into the lungs, where it can damage the DNA, potentially increasing cancer risk, says Douglas Arenberg, MD, associate professor of medicine in the pulmonary and critical care department at the University of Michigan Health System
Exposure to radon gas, which can seep through cracks in the walls and floors of your home, increases the risk of developing lung cancer. In the United States, an estimated 21,000 people die from radon-related lung cancer every year (compared with 160,000 lung cancer deaths from smoking), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, and it’s the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, adds the EPA. And people who smoke or used to smoke have an even greater chance of developing lung cancer if they are exposed to radon.
risk from radon exposure occurs over many years of high-level exposure,” Dr. Arenberg says
Radon: The Home Invader
Radon forms when uranium in water, rocks, and soil begins to break down, releasing radon gas into the dirt beneath your home. Radon can enter your home through:
Cracks in foundation walls and floors
Gaps in flooring
Warm air rising indoors
Spaces around pipes entering the foundation
Wind blowing outdoors
Fireplaces and furnaces
Open areas inside the walls
Exterior air vents
Water — usually well water
Construction joints — where concrete stops and starts again
Radon is a common problem in homes throughout the country — as many as one in 15 U.S. homes has high levels of radon, according to the EPA. But certain geographic regions are more likely to be affected. In general, the Northeast, southern Appalachia, the Midwest, and northern plains areas tend to have levels over the recommended limit of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air, while coastal areas tend to have lower levels. Newer homes may also have higher levels of radon due to better porosity in soil around the house, which can make it easier for radon gas to flow in.
But elevated levels of radon can be found in any state and in any home. Often, next-door neighbors can have vastly different radon readings — one safe and the other not.
Home Testing for Radon
Because radon can be found outdoors in low levels, everyone is exposed to it at some point. But it's much more dangerous inside a home, where the gas is more confined and therefore concentrated at significantly higher levels.
An at-home kit (available at most hardware stores) that is labeled as “Meets EPA Requirements” can be used to test for radon in your home. You can start with short-term (usually two-day) radon testing with a home kit; the sample you collect is sent for analysis, with results mailed to you within a few weeks.
You can also do long-term testing, which gives you a more accurate picture of the radon levels in your home — the test measures air quality over a period of about 90 days. Since radon levels can fluctuate frequently, it's usually best to do a long-term test. Long-term tests can also be performed with a home kit.
“It is important to note that for people who do not spend any time in their basement, it may not necessary to measure your radon level in the basement,” Arenberg says. “Radon is not a problem on upper levels of houses, given the airflow which naturally reduces exposure to radon. I recommend people check the levels only if they have a finished basement or otherwise spend a lot of time in their basement.”
When testing, carefully follow all instructions on the kit. Both short- and long-term tests can be done simultaneously. Checking water for radon requires a separate test. Consult your county health department for information on testing your water, or contact a radon specialist.
Reducing Radon Levels
If the radon levels in your home exceed the 4 pCi/L level, you should take steps to reduce the radon level as soon as possible.
Over time, radon will disappear due to radioactive decay. But, “anyone with elevated radon levels should take the time, and spend the money, to get the problem fixed,” Arenberg says. He stresses that you should not panic if you do have high levels of radon in your basement because "it’s very easy to remedy this.”
You can install a removal system that allows radon gas from beneath the home to be immediately vented outside. Radon removal can eliminate up to 99 percent of radon from the home, according to the EPA. These devices, called soil-suction radon reduction systems, should always be installed and supervised by a certified radon mitigation specialist or radon remediation service.
You or the radon remediation specialist can also seal off any cracks in your home — in the floors, foundation, or walls — to keep radon gas from seeping through the cracks and into the air you breathe indoors. Re-testing should be done at regular intervals to ensure that the radon mitigation has been successful.
Radon is a common problem with serious potential side effects, and that’s why it's a good idea for everyone to consider home testing for radon so any potential issues can be resolved. Knowing the air quality
of your home can give you peace of mind and leave you breathing a little easier.