Radon in the Home Can Cause Lung Cancer

By Krisha McCoy
HealthDay Reporter
Wednesday, January 24, 2007 12:00 AM

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

But while most Americans know tobacco smoke is the primary trigger for lung cancer, very few are aware of the risks posed by radon -- or that dangerous levels of the gas can be found in many homes.

"Radon is an invisible, odorless, tasteless gas that can be in your home and you not even know it," said Bill Wehrum, acting assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office Air and Radiation. "There are about 20,000 deaths per year attributable to lung cancer caused by radon exposure."

January is National Radon Action Month, and the EPA is urging people to get their homes tested. Only one in five homeowners has actually tested for the gas, according to the agency.

Radon gas is created by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. It can travel up through the ground and seep into buildings and homes through cracks and other holes in the foundation. When it gets trapped inside a home, radon can build up to dangerous levels.

Radon causes lung cancer by decaying into radioactive products that can become lodged in your lungs when you inhale them, said Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University.

"Your risk of having a high level of radon depends on whether you have a basement, use your basement as a living area, and where you live," he said.

It's estimated that about one of every 15 homes in the United States has elevated radon levels. Testing is the only way to know if your home is safe. The EPA recommends testing all homes below the third floor.

There are two types of tests -- short-term and long-term. Most short-term tests remain in your home for a couple of days to a week, while long-term tests usually remain in your home for a year. The tests measure the amount of radon in the air in "picocuries per liter of air," or "pCi/L."

Gelman suggests the yearlong test if you can afford it -- about $50 -- because it's more accurate than short-term tests.

The EPA recommends a short-term test (about $15) first, since it's more convenient. If the results are 4 pCi/L or higher, the agency recommends that you follow up with either a long-term test or second short-term test. If the long-term test or the average of two short-term tests is 4 pCi/L or higher, the EPA says you should take steps to safeguard your home.

A qualified professional can install a radon-reduction system that will cost around $2,000. The system works by using a pipe and simple fan to draw air from beneath the home to prevent radon-containing air from migrating from the soil up through the basement and into the home, Gelman said.

"There is a real public health issue here," Wehrum said. "What we have to do is persuade people that it is important to test their homes and to act if the test indicates that there is a problem."

Still unsure whether you should test your home?

Gelman and his colleagues have developed a Web site called the "Radon Project" (www.stat.columbia.edu/~radon/), which includes a test that assesses a homeowner's risk of dangerous levels of radon in the house.

More information

The EPA has more about radon.

SOURCES: Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator, Office of Air and Radiation, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.; Andrew Gelman, Ph.D., professor, departments of statistics and political science, Columbia University, New York City

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