What is Radon, and Where Does It Come From?
When people think about sources of radiation, they may immediately envision large-scale emergencies like a dirty bomb or the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. In such situations, NACCHO does maintain a portfolio of resources to help local health departments prepare for these worst-case scenarios. Like the materials released during these emergency scenarios, radon is radioactive and may cause cancer. Unlike the contaminants in a human-driven disaster, radon is a gas that occurs naturally in the environment.
Radon gas is formed from the decay, or breakdown, of naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth’s rocks and soil. In outdoor environments, this exposure to radon occurs in very low doses and is unlikely to harm health. However, it is important to note that there is no safe level of exposure to carcinogens, or cancer-causing materials. The carcinogenic effects of radon become evident when the gas accumulates indoors, causing higher concentrations of the gas and therefore higher exposure.
Tiny cracks in the foundation, constructions joints, gaps in suspended floors and around service pipes, cavities inside walls, and a groundwater supply are all ways that the gas can seep into homes and other buildings. Test kits must be used to detect radon in a home, as the gas is both odorless and invisible. In addition, some parts of the United States have higher levels of radon in the soil than others. You can learn more about the overall radon levels in your county by viewing state-level maps of radon zones as published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Health Effects of Radon
Exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall. When the gas is inhaled, most of the radon itself is immediately exhaled again. However, the products of decomposing radon (the radioactive particles) can become lodged deep in the lungs and continue to irradiate the tissue. The EPA estimates that radon causes approximately 21,000 deaths due to lung cancer every year.
The EPA has conducted comprehensive risk assessments on the dangers of radon. Because radon is classified as a carcinogen, there is no level of exposure to the gas that could be considered completely safe. However, the odds of acquiring lung cancer from low doses of radon are extremely small. Based on extensive study, the EPA recommends an action level of 4 picocuries per liter of air (4 pCi/L). To learn more about the process of environmental health risk assessment, you can visit the EPA’s page on how experts evaluate carcinogens and other air pollutants.
Steps to Protect Yourself & Your Loved Ones
Radon is a unique environmental health hazard, and you can take a number of simple and inexpensive steps to protect yourself and your family from radon gas. Radon test kits are available through some state-level radon programs, and can also be bought online or at home improvement stores. Upon testing your home, levels under 4 pCi/L do not require any action to be taken. However, in many cases, radon levels can still be reduced through remediation methods outlined by the EPA. If your home has concentrations of radon higher than 4 pCi/L, remediation by way of home repair and other radon reduction systems should be implemented.
If you are a smoker and there is radon present in your home, your risk of lung cancer is significantly increased. One way to decrease your risk of lung cancer from radon is to quit smoking. Other more temporary solutions for reducing radon in your home include opening windows and doors to increase natural ventilation, sealing obvious cracks in floors and walls, or if you are buying a new home, asking whether the home was constructed using radon-resistant techniques.
Don’t waste the last day of Radon Action Month—get your home tested now!