Radon gas in homes can lead to lung cancer

House in a neighborhood with front yard
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Dear Doctors: Would you please address radon gas? I've spent 40 years in real estate sales here in Florida, and while radon is noted in inspections, most buyers don't realize it's dangerous. Any information about the health risks, and how to protect yourself, could help a lot of people.

Dear Reader: Thank you for bringing up an important topic. You're correct that radon is not well recognized as a potential health threat. And yet, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it's a leading cause of lung cancer in this country, second only to smoking.

Radon is a clear and colorless radioactive gas. It forms as the radioactive particles that are present in virtually every type of soil, rock and groundwater go through a slow and complex process of decay. Over time, long-term or repeated exposure is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.

Radon gas can be present in any structure of any age, and in any region. The primary entry point is via cracks and fissures in a building’s foundation. Buildings with basements, which sit below ground level, are more likely to be affected by radon. This is due to their proximity to the soil and porous building materials, which make it easier for the gas to enter.

The pressure differential between the inside and outside of the home also plays a role. The lower pressure indoors acts like a vacuum and draws radon into the house. Natural air currents, plus heating and cooling systems, further disperse the gas.

When you breathe, radon gas in the environment enters the lungs. Radioactive particles, which emit low-level energy as they decay, can get trapped in the tissues. Over time, these bursts of energy can cause the cellular changes that lead to lung cancer.

The risk of cancer is higher for people who smoke. Data show that a smoker who is regularly exposed to radon in the environment has up to 10 times the risk of developing lung cancer than a nonsmoker who undergoes the same level of exposure.

For most of us, the most likely site of radon exposure is our home. Fortunately, simple and affordable detection tests are available online and from home-improvement and hardware stores. The test is put into place for either a few days or a few months and then mailed to a lab for analysis. The EPA recommends testing the basement, first floor and second floor of all homes. This includes newly built and so-called radon-resistant homes.

When radon is found, mitigation is necessary. Your state radon office or the EPA can provide information about qualified specialists to remove existing radon and put reduction measures in place. Even with radon-reduction systems, homes should be tested every two years, no matter their age. It's also helpful to increase air circulation in the home, and to seal any cracks in the floors or walls. The EPA website has a library of useful information about radon gas prevention and mitigation. Go to epa.gov and type “radon” into the search box at the top of the page.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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