Radon: The Silent Home Invader That Can Kill

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter
Friday, April 4, 2008; 12:00 AM

FRIDAY, April 4 (HealthDay News) -- You can't see, smell or taste radon.

The gas emanates naturally from the soil, seeping up into homes that rest on the ground. The only way to avoid it, really, is to have a house on stilts.

But the radioactive gas is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in America, as well as the second leading cause of lung cancer overall, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It claims about 21,000 lives annually.

"It is a health risk you can't see," said Kristy Miller, spokeswoman for the EPA's Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. "You can't touch it, you can't feel it. It is an inert gas. It's in your home for a long time, leaving no trail of evidence. It's only your proactive interest and testing that's going to prevent this health risk."

Radon is a global problem -- the World Health Organization says radon causes up to 15 percent of lung cancers worldwide.

About one of every 15 homes in the United States is estimated to have a dangerous radon level, which the EPA defines as more than 4 picocuries per liter of air.

Radon is produced from the natural decay of uranium, an element found in nearly all soils. "The earth is always emitting radon at some level," Miller said. "It's always a part of the outdoor ambient air, in trace amounts."

The gas typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into your home through cracks and other holes in the foundation. The home then traps radon inside.

"A home over the soil can act as a holding tank, allowing radon to accumulate to high levels," Miller said.

When inhaled, radon can damage the lungs by continuing to emit tiny bursts of alpha radiation, she said.

"The alpha emitters can actually damage the DNA of the lung tissue," Miller said. "The lung is extremely sensitive, compared with the skin."

Any amount of radon exposure is bad, the EPA says, but the cancer risk increases over time, as exposure is prolonged.


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