Generally, when we talk about lung cancer and its causes, our initial focus is on smoking. That’s to be expected, as smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer for men and women around the world. However, there are other environmental factors that can contribute to an increased risk for developing lung cancer. Radon, a colorless and odorless gas, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Americans, and the single most common cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Unfortunately, the hazards of radon are rarely discussed, and many people may be risking exposure without even knowing it. However, there are proactive steps that people can take to limit their exposure to this dangerous gas, and to reduce their risks for developing radon induced lung cancer.

Radon – A Primer

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that is produced by the normal decay of uranium deposits in soil. As the uranium decays, the radon gas is released into the surrounding soil, or into the atmosphere. Radon is both odorless and colorless, making it difficult to detect without proper testing equipment. Radon can enter people’s homes through cracks in the foundation and walls, through gaps around sump pumps or drains, and through cracked or poorly fitted pipes. Radon has also been detected in the water supplies of people whose home’s depend on well water.

Radon and Lung Cancer

Radon gas carries a low level of radiation, which has been linked to an increased risk for a number of disorders, including lung cancer. When radon is released into the home, it binds with particles in the air which are then breathed in by the inhabitants. Smokers are particularly susceptible to radon related lung cancer, mostly due to the prolonged damage that has already been done to their lungs. But people who live with smokers are also at a greater risk, as smoking produces an abundance of air particles that the radon gas can bind with to produce a toxic home environment. Some people may be at a greater risk for radon related cancers due to infirmity or a genetic predisposition to cancer. Children and the elderly are at a significantly higher risk than otherwise healthy adults.

Testing for Radon

While the thought of a colorless and odorless cancer causing gas permeating your home is certainly frightening, there is some good news. Testing your home for radon gas is easy and inexpensive. The EPA recommends that all home owners, and anyone considering the purchase of a new home, should have the property tested for radon gas. Testing kits are available at most hardware stores, and typically cost between $20 and $40. After the test has been performed according to instructions, the kit should be returned to the manufacturer who will process the results and send you a detailed report. In the United States, any radon level above 4pCi/L (pico curies per liter) is deemed hazardous to the home owner’s health. In Canada and Europe, radon levels over 2pCi/L are considered abnormal. Ideally you want as low a reading as possible.

What to Do if Your Home Has Elevated Radon Levels

If, after testing, your home shows signs of elevated radon levels there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure. Hire a certified contractor to inspect your home. Many licensed contractors are certified by the EPA for radon detection and repairs, and these firms will be able to located the source of the exposure and suggest repairs to eliminate the problem. In most cases repair costs are minimal, averaging between $1200 and $2200.

The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 15% of all lung cancer cases worldwide are the result of radon exposure. To put that into perspective, a person exposed to a radon level of 4pCi/L is five times more likely to die of lung cancer than in a car crash. The statistics are startling, and more than a little chilling. Fortunately, there are steps everyone can take to limit their exposure to this dangerous gas. If you are a home owner, or are thinking of buying a new home, now is the time to have it tested for radon. If you are an apartment dweller, contact your landlord and ask if they have tested the property, and if they have taken steps to limit the potential radon exposure. Your health, and the health of your family, may depend upon it.