Understand lung cancer risks in National Radon Month
By Hao Lu
Just arrived in Boston? Need to relocate because of work? Renting or buying a house for your family? No rush. Before moving into your new home, make sure that the apartment or house has been tested for indoor radon levels and you are not at risk for radon gas exposure, which may cause lung cancer.
January ushers in a new year and National Radon Month. It is time to raise awareness about the dangers of high radon levels in homes, as well as to learn the danger of this odorless, invisible gas and its effects on the body.
Radon, a radioactive gas that is found in nearly all soils, has been identified as one of the leading causes of lung cancer in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon causes between 15,000 and 22,000 lung cancer deaths every year in the country.
On the National Radon Month website, a radon map shows where the gas is most prevalent in the United States. Massachusetts areas have moderate to high radon levels on the map.
According to the map, areas that have a predicted average indoor radon screening level greater than 4 picocuries per liter would be considered as high radon level. On the other hand, if the average indoor radon screening level is less than 2 pCi/L, the radon level is relatively low.
How does radon get into homes? Radon is a naturally occurring, odorless, colorless and radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. Since air pressure inside homes is usually lower than the pressure in the soil around the foundation, radon will move up through the ground to the air above, being drawn into the building through openings or cracks. Additionally, radon may also be found in well water and be released into homes when water is used for showering and other household uses.
Once radon enters into a home, it accumulates over time and radon levels can become elevated. The radon gas usually decays into radioactive solids, which are called radon daughters. Radon daughters attach to dust particles in the air and can be inhaled. The radioactive decay elements may affect the cells in the lung and eventually lead to lung cancer.
There is no known safe level of exposure to radon. For more than 20 years, the EPA’s action level of 4 pCi/L has been the U.S. standard. However, recent findings by the World Health Organization have led to the establishment of a new standard for action of 2.7 pCi/L for indoor radon levels, which is a much more conservative figure than the EPA’s. Recent studies have confirmed that the risk of lung cancer that radon leads to is evident even at levels much lower than earlier studies suggested.
Early awareness of potentially high radon levels can eliminate the health risks associated with the gas. Families are encouraged to have their homes and water sources regularly tested to make sure the indoor radon levels are low enough. You may consider renovating your home if the test result shows more than 2 pCi/L.
Testing and taking action to reduce radon are particularly important for families with small children. Making plans for home improvements that reduce radon levels and scheduling annual radon testing to ensure the radon level is below 4 pCi/L are ways to help families reduce the risk of lung cancer.
According to Jamey Gelina, a radon mitigation specialist with the Air Quality Control Agency, if people take action when radon levels exceed 2.7 pCi/L rather than the previous limit of 4 pCi/L, there will be a large increase in the number of homes being tested and improved enforcement of radon-resistant new construction requirements.
EPA recommends homeowners to have a qualified radon mitigation contractor repair their homes, since lowering high radon levels requires specific knowledge. However, you can also do the work yourself under appropriate instruction. For more information on training courses and copies of EPA’s technical guidance documents for home repairs, please visit www.epa.gov/radon/pubs.
This post is also available in: Chinese