Next to smoking, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States — and the most common cause of the condition among people who do not smoke. In an effort to boost public awareness about the dangers and prevalence of this naturally forming, radioactive gas, organizations including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Lung Association have used January — National Radon Action Month — to promote radon testing and mitigation.
Among the central messages coming from health organizations: Take steps to protect yourself and loved ones from radon exposure in the home through radon testing.
“Radon in homes is more common than you think. In fact, at least 1 in 15 homes in the U.S. have elevated levels of radon and this is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States,” said Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association in a press release. “The good news is that it is easy to test for radon. Do-it-yourself test kits are simple to use and inexpensive.”
Radon is a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. It forms naturally from the breakdown of uranium in the soil or rock beneath buildings. Radon gas can then enter homes or other buildings through cracks in their foundations, walls, or other structural gaps.
Like all radioactive substances, radon decays over time. This radioactive decay releases substances into the air that, when inhaled, can cause lung cancer. Though radon can occur anywhere in the environment, the buildup of radon in indoor spaces can pose serious health risks.
Although smoking is most commonly associated with lung cancer, researchers have found that radon exposure is the second leading cause of the condition. An estimated 21,000 individuals die due to radon-related lung cancer in the U.S. each year.
Initially, some researchers doubted the extent of radon’s carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties, but studies have confirmed the link between radon exposure and lung cancer. Two studies — one North American and one European — have shown definitive evidence of the connection between lung cancer and exposure to radon in residential homes.
“These findings effectively end any doubts about the risks to Americans of having radon in their homes,” noted Tom Kelly, former director of the EPA’s Indoor Environments Division. “We know that radon is a carcinogen. This research confirms that breathing low levels of radon can lead to lung cancer.”
Initiatives like The National Radon Action Plan — devised by a dozen nonprofits and government agencies — aim to ultimately eliminate radon-associated lung cancer. The long-term goal is to eliminate avoidable radon-induced lung cancer in the United States by incorporating radon testing, radon mitigation, and radon-resistant construction into all steps of home construction and renovation.
However, there are also important steps people can take themselves and their loved ones from radon exposure within your home — namely, performing radon testing.
Radon is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Because of this, the only way to detect radon buildup within the home is to test the air.
Radon test kits offer a do-it-yourself way to test for the presence of radon in the home. Short-term tests kits offer a simple, quick way to determine whether a home has high levels of radon. These tests are left in the home for between two and seven days to assess the amount of radon in the air, then sent out for laboratory analysis. The results of this testing will be returned within several weeks.
Long-term tests kits assess the radon in the home over a longer period (at least three months) and, as a result, offer more accurate results than short-term tests.
There are several ways to obtain radon test kits. Kansas State University’s National Radon Program Services offer test kits online at discounted prices. Many online and physical home improvement stores also carry do-it-yourself radon test kits for purchase.
The concentration of radon in the air is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The EPA recommends taking steps to mitigate the radon in your home if a radon test provides results of 4.0 pCi/L or greater and to consider mitigation strategies if the results indicate a level between 2.0 and 4.0 pCi/L. The lower the level of radon in the home, the better.
The EPA offers resources for finding a certified professional to test for and reduce radon levels in the home.