Radon: A Serious Public Health Risk



An estimated 20,000 fatal cases of lung cancer in America can be attributed to radon exposure. It is the second leading cause of death. Radon is a form of radiation that is produced by decaying uranium. It is a proven carcinogen that can be found in a wide variety of materials including water and soil. The gas is clear, odorless, and tasteless. Exposure to the gas does not produce immediate symptoms and the only known physical effect on humans is the development of lung cancer.

Radon can be ingested via infected water or food, but it is most problematic when inhaled. It is found in outdoor and indoor air. There are no safe levels of radon exposure, but the EPA recommends homeowners take immediate action if their houses test for radon levels at 4 pCi/L or higher. The average home is found to have 1.3 pCi/L of radon in the air. Therefore, EPA recommends homeowners begin searching for and implementing solutions if their homes test between 2 to 4 pCi/L of radon. Outdoors, the average amount of radon found in the air is .4 pCi/L.

Smoking and Radon Exposure

People who smoke are especially vulnerable to developing radon-related cancer. The two substances play off one another. Out of 1,000 people, approximately 62 smokers will die as opposed to 7.3 never smokers. A person who has never smoked that is exposed to 1.3 pCi/L of radon has a 2:1000 chance of developing lung cancer. A smoker, on the other hand, has a 20:1000 chance of getting this often-fatal disease when exposed to the same level of radon.

In 1988, the Toxic Substances Control Act was amended to include radon and was used to codify and fund the Environmental Protection Agency’s radon program. That same year, a warning about radon was issued by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office that encouraged citizens to test the levels of radon in their homes and offices and to take steps to eradicate it if necessary.

Although the action level of radon is 4 pCi/L, there are no “safe” or “livable” levels of this toxic substance. Unfortunately, many people assume anything below the action level is okay. This may have to do with the fact that radon poisoning does not induce immediate symptoms. The only time a person may know he or she was exposed to radon is after developing lung cancer or having his or her living or work space tested. The greatest risk of radon exposure is in residential homes, particularly in rooms that are below ground level such as basements.

It is critical that buildings are tested on a regular basis for radon leaks. This will help reduce the risk of developing lung cancer, especially if the problems are fixed right away. Additionally, smokers who stop using cigarettes or other tobacco products will significantly reduce their risk of getting lung cancer. If quitting is not an option, then smoke outdoors so the rest of the inhabitants of the home can enjoy a smoke-free environment.

Information About the EPA’s Indoor Environments Division (IED)

IED (Indoor Environments Division) is a department of the EPA that deals with research and public education about various indoor environmental issues such as radon exposure. The department focuses on identifying risks and teaching people how to reduce their exposure to harmful or hazardous environmental problems. More information about radon can be obtained through the State Radon Contact.