By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It’s a little like a storyline from those nuclear-age science-fiction movies from the 1950s. An invisible, insidious gas invades your home, poised to undermine your family’s health.

But this is no fiction. It’s radon, a gas that exists naturally in the earth, but can concentrate in homes raising the cancer risk for those who are exposed long term.

The danger doesn’t threaten everyone. Most homes do not pose a radon risk, but the EPA estimates that 1 in 15 U.S. houses has radon levels that exceed safe thresholds, which puts occupants at risk of a very specific outcome: lung cancer.

Radon, a clear threat. (Chart: EPA)

An estimated 21,000 Americans die from lung cancer linked to radon exposure in the home, according to the EPA, which bases that estimate on its own survey and studies by the National Academy of Sciences.

Those 22,000 patients include smokers, for whom smoking and radon exposure created a synergistic effect that led to the disease, as well as non-smokers. That makes radon the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, according to the EPA.

“It is something that people should be worried about,” said Bill Long, the director for the Center for Radon and Air Toxics at the EPA. “People need to learn more about radon and test their homes.”

Lung cancer, he added, “is a horrible, horrible disease. Only 15 percent of people are alive five years after diagnosis.

By comparison, smoking is linked to about 150,000 deaths from lung cancer every year in the US, according to the American Lung Association.

Sneaky radon evades public attention too

That radon is far overshadowed lung cancer’s main trigger, cigarettes, may be one reason it has lingered as a health threat, despite relatively easy solutions (see below).

The EPA has been battling the radon problem since the early 1990s, mainly by informing homeowners of the need to test for and have the radioactive gas vented out of the house if levels exceed what’s considered safe. But as more homes were built in the last two decades, houses with radon issues kept accumulating, essentially outpacing public awareness, instead of the other way around.

First Alert’s Radon Test is just one of several available. You sample your home’s air, and their lab conducts the test.

In an editorial decrying the lack of attention to cancer caused by radon, Bill Field, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, blamed the continuing radon threat on the underfunding of radon public education and the inability of builders to incorporate venting at the time of construction.

“Since the late 1980s, a half million Americans have died from radon-induced lung cancer, including a significant number who never smoked a day in their lives. You may have heard of radon more than 20 years ago when dangerous levels were first found in homes across the country. But the risks posed by this gas still have not been addressed in much of the nation,” Field lamented in the March 2012 piece, published in The New York Times as the EPA prepared to trim funding for radon education.

Another factor that may confound the public is that radon tends to be worse in areas where homes are built over bedrock containing higher levels of uranium, and less common in other geographical regions. That may cause homeowners in, say the Midwest or Texas, where excessive radon is less common, to believe they don’t need to test.

But, they do and they should, Long said, because radon issues are dependent on geology and home construction, each residence is unique. Radon problems may be less likely to occur in certain areas, but some houses still may have issues. Conversely, highly affected areas with may have many homes that don’t have radon issues. The incidence can be erratic with even next door houses testing differently, Long said.

Radon Zone mapThe EPA’s US radon map shows the red areas where radon is most frequently found, followed by the orange (middle) and yellow (lowest) zones.

Radon’s health impact is clear and well-documented

And there’s that invisibility problem. Radon, chemically inert and unnoticeable, causes virtually no warning health signs but damages the DNA of the lungs over the long term, affecting homeowners who’ve had many years of exposure — another factor that can mask a radon issue.

The hazards of radon were first uncovered in miners who had more intensive daily exposures and lung cancer rates that soared above the general population, among smoking miners and non-smoking miners. That’s how researchers figured out the synergistic effects of radon combined with tobacco smoke and also realized that non-smokers were becoming victims. That  led to further studies that showed smaller, daily doses of radon, which could be 24/7 in affected houses, posed a threat to homeowners. The miners had been surrounded by radioactive rock every working day, but homeowners were exposed to lower doses that could accumulate over the long term.

The science, Long says, is “crystal clear” that radon does biological damage that can lead to cancer.

“An important point to keep in mind with radon,” Long explained, “is it is one of the most studied pollutants in the world.”

Fortunately, even though radon is hard to see or smell, it’s “easy and cheap” to test for, he said. The EPA recommends that people go online or to a hardware store to obtain a simple radon test, which they conduct themselves and then send in for analysis.

Not only are these readily available tests affordable and reliable, the next step, mitigating the radon if levels are above the recommended thresholds, also is straightforward.

Radon can enter the house in many ways, through cracks in concrete slabs; spaces behind brick veneer walls resting on open hollow-brick foundations; pores and cracks in concrete blocks; floor-wall joints; exposed soil, as in a sump; weeping (drain) tile opening to a sump; mortar joints; loose fitting pipes; open tops of block walls; rocks used in building; well water (Image: EPA)

Contractors generally vent the gas out of the house through the roof using a thin pipe that’s embedded into the ground. The venting relieves the negative pressure that pulled the radon into the home from the earth. (Radon exposure is greatest the closer you are to the ground, and the greatest in basements, though having a house with a basement doesn’t necessarily mean there’s radon present.)

That can cost several hundred dollars, up to around $2,500, according to the agency. But it’s nowhere near the headache or expensive of many unhealthy house issues. Asbestos, black mold and lead paint can cost much more to ameliorate.

“If you care about risk in the home you’re in, you should test your home for radon…,” Long said.

“Fixing radon is one of the ways you can have a green and healthy home.”

What You Need to Know:

  • Don’t wonder, test for radon. Follow testing instructions by placing the test at a central location in the lowest level of the home.
  • If your home tests as having radon at levels 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air or higher, the EPA recommends that you correct the problem.
  •  EPA estimates the cost of radon mitigation “in a typical home ranges from about $500 to about $2,500”.
  • Your granite countertops, as you may have read, also can give off a small amount of radon, but according to the EPA, this is not nearly as worrisome as the primary sources of home radon pollution.  “It’s not out of the question that it (a countertop) could be contributing, but by far the most important thing is the soil,” Long said.

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