You can’t touch it, see it, or smell it but radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer outside of cigarette smoking.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It’s found in soil, rock, and even water as the breakdown of uranium. When uranium is broken down, it’s released into the air and can build up, causing critical long-term health effects.
The gas can sometimes be concentrated in homes built on natural soil with natural uranium deposits. It enters through cracks in the floors, walls, and even through construction joints or gaps around service pipes, electrical wires, and pits. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 1 in every 15 homes in the United States is estimated to have elevated radon levels.
When radon gas enters the body, it exposes the lungs to small amounts of radiation. In small quantities, experts say this is harmless. However, in persistent exposures or larger quantities, radon can damage the cells of the lining of the lungs, increasing a person’s chance of developing lung cancer.
Radon can’t be entirely prevented since it’s naturally present in the air. Despite this, high concentrations can come at a costly health expense.
“It is estimated that radon gas inhalation is responsible for 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths per year,” said Dr. Alan Mensch, pulmonologist and senior vice president of medical affairs, Plainview and Syosset Hospitals, Long Island, NY.
This is still dwarfed by cigarette use. Even today cigarette smoking poses the greatest risk in causing lung cancer with over 480,000 deaths per year in the United States and more than 7 million deaths worldwide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mensch said that except for “possibly leukemia, lung cancer is the only malignancy associated with radon exposure.”
“The combination of smoking and radon increases the risk [of developing lung cancer] by about a factor of nine times,” said Bruce Snead, Radon Programs Administrator at Kansas State University’s National Radon Program Service.
Just over 2 years ago, Rachael Malmberg, a U.S. star hockey player was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
She told Healthline that her initial symptoms were “pain in my back in the rib area that radiated to the shoulder blade and neck.” She said, “It was almost like a bad knot in your shoulder blades but it hurt eventually bad enough to move my head and turn my neck.”
Hearing the news of her cancer diagnosis was devastating. She had no other markers and didn’t fit the classic standard for those who get lung cancer.
Like many, Malmberg didn’t realize it was radon that caused her symptoms until it was too late. “I did not know about radon until I started asking what could cause lung cancer and doing research.”
She tested her home and her childhood home and found that radon “was the most logical connection that [she] could make to long-term exposure and vulnerability to establish something like lung cancer.”
Malmberg had experienced the later symptoms of lung cancer. In the short-term setting “there are no human indicators of current radon levels we are exposed to, nor signs or symptoms of that exposure from our perceptual systems,” said Snead.
Exposure to the combination of both radon gas and cigarettes causes a greater risk of lung cancer than exposure to each factor by themselves. Although most radon-related cancer deaths occur in smokers, more than 10 percent of radon related deaths occur in nonsmokers.
Testing is the only way to determine how much radon is present in someone’s home, office, school and water supply. There’s both short-term and long-term testing available.
Short-term tests can measure radon between 2 days and 90 days depending on the device used. To test in the short-term setting, you need to keep your windows and doors closed as much as possible to get an accurate measure of radon exposure.
As radon levels vary from day-to-day, long-term testing is recommended to get an accurate prediction of average radon exposure. Both types of testing are available and traditionally range between $30 and $100. And if you do have high radon levels, the average cost to make your home safer is $1,500 according to the National Radon Program Services.
“Certain areas of our country, such as Iowa, Appalachia, and Southeast Pennsylvania, have the highest atmospheric radon concentrations related to high soil concentrations,” said Mensch.
According to Snead, “we cannot know our exposure without testing for radon, and the Surgeon General has recommended all homes be tested for radon.”
To obtain more information, read the EPA’s Citizen’s Guide to Radon or visit the website of the National Radon Program Services, created by Kansas State University in conjunction with the EPA.