Radon, a radioactive, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, kills more people annually (roughly 21,000) than home fires, drowning, falls or drunk driving, making it the main cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.
There are several ways to limit the exposure to this deadly element, which is a result of uranium degradation, however, the majority of people are not informed of its risk or prevention options.
This element is present in the soil, rock and water, which means that everyone can be exposed to low levels of radon just through breathing. However, some areas have higher naturally occurring radon levels than others, and when this element is released into closed spaces, like homes that have high energy efficiency but low ventilation systems, then it starts to become dangerous.
“The degree of radioactivity causes DNA damage and cancer,” Dr. Jennifer Toth, director of interventional pulmonology at Penn State Hershey said in a news release. “It is a colorless, odorless, intangible thing that creates a cumulative effect.”
When radon is inhaled in significant amounts and for a long period of time, its radioactive particles can have a negative impact and cause damage to the cellular structures lining the lung. However, these effects are usually only manifested several decades after exposure.
“If you are living in a basement where the radon level is 20 for five years, you have the same risk as someone who has lived in a home with a radon level of 10 for twice as long,” Dr. Toth added. “Children also tend to have higher exposure to it because of their lung structure and their higher respiratory rate.”
Dr. Michael Reed, chief of the division of thoracic surgery at Penn State Hershey, explained that normally, people underestimate the real risk or think that only people who actively smoke need to be concerned about it. “Everyone should have their home checked. If the levels are high, move forward with some sort of abatement process”, he said.
Even though there is a 10 to 20 times higher risk of developing lung cancer in smokers exposed to radon (when compared to non-smokers), no one is protected from the deleterious effects of this radioactive element.
Currently, there are test kits that can be purchased to test radon levels at home, or alternatively, professional help can be hired.
“Current technology can easily decrease the concentration of radon in the air and lower the risk,” Dr. Reed said. “It’s easy, but it’s merely awareness.”
January is radon awareness month and more information can be found at www.epa.gov/radon.