“Radon” sounds like a secret  supervillain, and you could say that’s essentially what it is. An  invisible, odorless gas, radon concentrates in homes and buildings,  exposing those who breathe it in to the second-top cause of lung cancer  in the U.S. The good news is radon testing is simple; high-radon homes  can be mitigated or fixed – and free or reduced-cost testing is offered  in many areas.

Invisible Carcinogen

“Radon  is actually the leading environmental cause of cancer mortality in the  United States,” says Bill Field, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. “About 21,000 people die each year from it. People really underestimate its importance.”

Lung  cancer is the only type of cancer with a proven association to  protracted exposure to radon. “We have some suspicions it may be related  to other types of cancers, but there are no studies that have  conclusively shown that,” Field says.

As a cause of lung cancer in the U.S., radon is surpassed only by smoking.  And people who smoke are even more vulnerable when exposed to radon.  “If you’re a smoker and you live in a house with radon, your risk is  geometrically higher than just being a smoker without it,” says Janice  Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung  Association. “The two together combine to worsen your risk of  developing lung cancer.”

A Little Too Airtight

Today’s  energy-efficient, airtight homes actually pull radon inside and trap it  there, says Angel Price, associate director of Cancer Survivors Against  Radon. “Your houses suck” is a phrase used in radon-training courses,  she says, to illustrate how homes work as vacuums to draw radon in.

CanSAR  was co-founded by Elizabeth Hoffman, who was diagnosed with  radon-induced lung cancer in 2003 and died a decade later. Hoffman  became an anti-radon advocate, testifying several times in front of  Congress about the dangers of radon and the need for national awareness  and action.

Each Home Is Different

The Environmental Protection Agency website includes a map of EPA radon zones,  which color-codes counties into zones 1, 2 and 3. The areas in zone 1  have the highest predicted indoor radon screening levels. But the EPA  notes that homes with elevated radon levels can be found in all three  zones.

“The  reality is, we do know that high levels can be anywhere,” Nolen says.  “If you look at that map and go, ‘Hmm, I don’t live in one the  highest-risk zones; I’m not going to worry about it,’ you’re missing the  point. It can be a problem in any home in any neighborhood.”

Awareness  of radon’s risk for lung cancer started by looking at miners who had  been exposed to uranium, Nolen says. However, it wasn’t known that radon  was also in homes until the mid-1980s, she says.

“The more we learned, the more we know that it is a risk in many, many  homes,” Nolen says. “It can be in areas where you don’t think it’s a  problem. Your neighbors may have tested and not had a problem. But you  test because your situation may be very different, depending on your  house.”

Field  agrees: “I’ve looked at radon readings from every state,” he says.  “There are homes that have very high radon concentrations, even though  the state as a whole may not have a high concentration.”

Testing for Peace of Mind

Short-term  testing evaluates home radon concentrations over roughly 24 hours,  Nolen says. Her group recommends longer-term tests over several months.  Radon levels can fluctuate, she says, so extended testing in your home  gives a better representative sample.

“Then,  if you have low levels, you can check every couple years,” Nolen says.  “If you do some major renovations, you can check again. The most  important thing is to do the test, to find out if you have high levels  of radon.”

You  can perform a simple DIY test on your home for about $15 a kit. “What’s  really nice is, when you order a do-it-yourself test, it comes with  very detailed instructions and graphics on how to perform the test,”  Field says. “On how to place the test, the duration and how to return  the test. A lot of tests include paid postage for sending the detector  back to the laboratory for analysis.”

It  only takes about three or four days to get results back, Field says,  with an explanation of what they mean – whether radon concentrations are  high or below the EPA’s action levels. Professional testing with more  sophisticated methods is also available.

While  January is the EPA’s National Radon Action Month, you can still tap  into many free- or reduced-cost testing in locales including Nevada; Greenwich, Connecticut; and Macomb County, Michigan. Check your health department for radon-testing initiatives in your area.

Mitigation and Prevention

If  your home’s radon levels are elevated, you can take steps the improve  them. ​”Exposure is the concentration times the time you’ve been at the  exposure,” FIeld says. “So you want to make every effort to decrease  that exposure by eliminating the source.”

Mitigation is the process used to reduce radon concentration  and prevent the gas from coming into your home, Field explains.  Installing a mitigation system involves drilling a hole in your basement  foundation or first-floor slab, and running a PVC pipe from a  ground-level trench upward. An exhaust fan quickly draws radon from  inside your home and sends it out through the roof.

“To  me, radon is like a little dirty bomb that goes off in homes, but the  dirty radioactive bomb is from Mother Nature,” Field says. “Radon  outdoors is naturally occurring. Radon, when it’s coming into your home,  is not.” Making new homes radon-resistant is a cost-effective way to be  proactive, he says. “You’re talking about $500 extra when you build  that home.”

Schools and Workplaces, Too

Radon isn’t just a hazard at home. Nearly 1 in 5 schools  nationwide is estimated to have at least one schoolroom with a  short-term radon level above​ the EPA’s action level, according to the  agency’s website. Office buildings, college dorms, daycare facilities –  anywhere people routinely spend a large portion of their day is a  potential source of radon exposure.

“It  happens most frequently at home because we spend most of our time  indoors at home, especially children,” Nolen says. “And the longer  you’re exposed, that means the more you’re breathing in this  carcinogen.”

Dorms  or office buildings should also be tested, Field says, especially if  they’re underground or on the first level. “Any building where people  are going to spend any substantial period of time should be tested to  make sure they’re safe,” he says. “Many universities will respond if  people request a test. If people have concerns about radon, the  university health office will come out and do testing of that building  or that dorm to make sure that levels are low.”

Every  structure should be tested, Price says. “There are different protocols  for testing multifamily homes,” she notes. “And there’s a school testing  protocol. There are different ways to test and different  methodologies.”

Similarly,  you can talk to your employer about workplace testing if you are  concerned. Or you can call the Nation Radon Hotline at 800-557-2366 (or  800-55R-ADON) with any questions.​

Reducing Radon

The American Lung Association is leading a national workgroup on radon policy, which released its National Radon Action Plan in November  2015. “Incorporating radon testing, radon mitigation and  radon-resistant construction into systems that govern purchasing,  financing, constructing and renovating homes and other buildings” are  among the plan’s goals.

On  an individual level, Nolen says, “Radon is [a hazard] to put at the top  of your list of things to deal with, especially if you’re concerned  about your family’s health.”

Price  concurs: “It’s a whole lot cheaper to mitigate your home and to test  than have lung cancer,” she says. “A lot less expensive and a lot less  painful.”

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