In a previous article, we discussed the dangers of radon — an invisible killer in your home. To recap, radon is a radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of naturally occurring isotopes in uranium. Igneous rock and soil, as well as water in some cases, are its main sources. Exposure to radon increases the risk of lung cancer, claims multiple studies from around the world. Likewise, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies radon as a carcinogen.
Overlooking the risk radon carries is easy because our five basic senses cannot detect it. To help you better understand radon gas and its many consequences, Lawrence Dauer, a medical health physicist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, debunked some of the common misconceptions about radon gas below.
Myth 1: The connection between radon and lung cancer risk is an unproven theory.
The strong link between radon gas and lung cancer risk is something that thousands of studies established over the last four decades. The heightened lung cancer risk was first discovered in uranium miners, who worked in enclosed spaces underground for several hours. Due to this eye-opening realization, exposure to radon became the subject of mass scrutiny. Dr. Dauer explained that scientists “performed studies measuring radon levels in homes, especially in areas where houses are buttoned up for heating and cooling for much of the year. Some homes had radon levels close to some of the lower levels in the mines.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, there was skepticism about the “alleged” dangers that radon exposure presented to homeowners. Fortunately, in-depth studies since the early 2000s laid the question to rest.
How lung cancer occurs as a result of radon exposure is also clear and explains why it does not cause other malignant diseases. Unlike other forms of radioactive material, radon gas only affects the lungs.
“As radon gas breaks down, the particles lodge themselves in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs,” Dr. Dauer cited. “Or the radon gas molecules themselves attach to small dust particles, which go into the deep part of the lungs. Either way, once present, the energy they give off can damage lung cells and eventually lead to cancer.”
Myth 2: The increased risk of lung cancer is small.
Distinguished scientific and medical organizations, including the EPA and American Lung Association, identify radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer. The radioactive gas contributes to approximately 12 percent of lung cancers each year in the United States.
People who use tobacco products or smoke have a much higher lung cancer risk due to the synergistic interaction between radon gas and tobacco smoke. The EPA estimates that radon exposure elevates lung cancer risk about 8 to 9 times in smokers compared to nonsmokers.
“It is almost as if smoking sets you up and radon pushes you over the edge,” Dr. Dauer shared. “You have the chemical damage from smoking, and now you are bringing in radiation exposure on top of that. Clearly, we encourage everyone to stop smoking — that is most important. But if you are not going to quit, make sure you are aware of the radon level in your house.”
To help you quit this life-threatening habit, read 10 Fail-Proof Strategies to Quit Smoking.
Myth 3: Testing your house for radon is expensive and time-consuming.
The standard test is simple and inexpensive. Test kits are available at hardware stores, home improvement stores, or online for about $20 to $30. “It usually is about the size of a hockey puck and has perforated holes and charcoal inside,” Dr. Dauer disclosed. “You open it, like you would an air freshener, leave it sitting for a few days in your house in one of the lower-level rooms, and then send it off to a lab for testing.”
Laboratories measure radon in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) — an indicator of radioactivity. In the United States, the typical indoor radon level is about 1.3 pCi/L. The typical outdoor level is roughly 0.4 pCi/L. Both the EPA and US Surgeon General recommend “fixing” households with radon levels at or above 4 pCi/L.
Myth 4: Reducing the radon level inside your property is costly.
The process of reducing radon levels, called radon mitigation, is simpler than most people believe. Instead of sealing the home to stop radon gas from seeping, radon mitigation systems utilize a fan to pull air from the soil, then release the gas outdoors through a pipe. Once outside, radon gas dissipates and is not hazardous.
The cost of radon mitigation systems usually ranges between $800 and $1,500. According to Dr. Dauer, more and more companies are investing in radon testing and mitigation systems because of the potential health risks of radon.
Myth 5: Radon is a problem confined in limited parts of the country.
The different regions in the United States have more and less radon. Still, it is almost impossible to determine the risk of a specific location. As mentioned, radon is a result of uranium deposits, soil composition, atmospheric conditions, home construction, and several other factors.
All homes must undergo testing for radon before being sold. However, for families who are uncertain about their current home, take the risk seriously and check reputable online resources for more information. “The EPA has a great message, which is very clear: Test. Fix. Save a life,” shared Dr. Dauer.
The Bottom Line
Radon is generally a harmless part of the environment, but long-term exposure to high levels puts people at risk of developing lung cancers, especially if they smoke. Testing for radon is fairly affordable and easy to do, so do not hesitate to get started.
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