Many of us may have heard that radon exposure can increase the risk of developing lung cancer, but what is it? What does this mean? While exposure to radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer development, it accounts for only 15,000-20,000 deaths in the US yearly, as compared to much greater numbers from lung cancer as a result of other factors. While radon exposure can lead to lung cancer, its risks are the greatest when combined with smoking. Those who smoke and are exposed to radon are more likely to develop lung cancer as a result, than individuals just exposed to radon.
What is Radon?
Radon is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, making it very hard to detect. However, we don’t need to live in fear! The amounts we are typically exposed to in the atmosphere and in our homes are well below the amount necessary to see detrimental effects. Radon gas is a result of the decay of certain elements in rocks and soil, including uranium, radium, and thorium. This decay can seep from the ground and into the air, producing a small fraction of the atmosphere we live in. Occasionally, however, some of these radioactive particles can dissolve into ground water and can remain in the water or can dissolve in greater amounts into the air when this water is utilized. Radon enters our homes through cracks in the floors, foundation, walls, and the like, and often escapes on its own, leading to fluctuating, but usually very very low, amounts in our households.
Am I at Risk? How Can I Tell?
Since radon can seep in via cracks in the homes and from the ground, basements are usually the areas of our homes with the highest radon concentrations. The more insulated our homes, the less likely the radon can escape, so this may be one of the only times where the imperfections in our insulation may actually be helping us! Additionally, those who utilize ground water may be at a higher risk for radon entering the air in their homes. Since radon levels can fluctuate from day to day and under different ventilation conditions, it is often best to perform a long-term radon test if you are concerned about your household. At home kits that can test for up to 90 days are typically inexpensive, and can provide you with an accurate and average value of the radon in your home’s air. Typically, a value of 4 picocuries per liter (4 pCi/L) or greater would be a sign to call appropriate agencies for help.
Thankfully, radon generally present in such small quantities, that its effects are nearly negligible! However, if you do feel like your home is at risk for increased levels of radon, it is a good idea to perform an at-home test like the one described above. For any questions, you can always contact the National Radon Hotline at 1-800-55-RADON (1-800-557-2366). Knowing more about your surroundings can never be a bad thing!1
“Radon and Cancer.” National Institute of Health—National Cancer Institute. 2017. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/radon/radon-fact-sheet