A silent killer could be lurking in your house right now, and, chances are, you don’t even know it. While it may sound dramatic, it’s true. As the second top cause of lung cancer, right after smoking, radon gas kills approximately 21,000 people each year.
It’s scary stuff, but the good news is that the majority of those deaths are preventable. Learning about radon gas and taking actions to lower the amount in your home could save your life someday.
What is Radon Gas?
Radon, a radioactive gas, is produced when metals that are radioactive, such as thorium, radium, and uranium, naturally decay in soil, rocks, and even groundwater. The gas is found in the outside air that you breathe, although in lower levels after it rises from the ground.
Since it gives off no odor and can’t be seen, radon gas can’t be found inside the home unless a special test is taken to check its presence.
What Causes Radon Gas in Homes?
Radon gas can make its way into a home through foundation cracks. Since it enters into the house primarily through foundation or basement cracks and unsealed joints, the basement level typically has the greatest radon concentration in homes in homes.
But radon gas can also be found, although not generally in as high of levels, on first and second floors of homes, too. Whole-house air conditioning and heating systems can cause radiation to circulate to the rest of the house. However, the highest levels are usually found in the basement.
How Common is Radon in Homes?
If you’ve been told by an inspector or through a home test that your house has detectable radon levels, don’t panic. That’s normal. That’s normal. You’re not going to eliminate radon gas from your home completely.
But how many homes have a problem with elevated radon gas readings? As many as one in 15 homes are believed to have excessive radon levels.
How Bad Is Radon in a House?
How high your radon gas levels are in your home dictates whether you should do something about it. Levels greater than 4.0 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) call for you to implement radon gas mitigation efforts to decrease the level in your home. This much radiation is about on par with the amount of radiation found in 100 chest x-rays.
According to the EPA, while 4.0 pCi/L is the highest acceptable level, it can still lead to cancer deaths. For that reason, they suggest finding ways to lessen the radon in your home even if your levels are between 2.0 pCi/L and 4.0 p/Ci/L.
But keep in mind, your circumstances also play a role in whether you should seek mitigation efforts. It can take years for radon gas exposure to form cancer. In some cases, experts believe that cancer may be found as soon as five years after exposure. However, it may also take decades before cancer develops.
If you’re an 80-year-old who lives alone and you move to a new home, you likely don’t need to spend the extra money on radon mitigation. It’s unlikely a cancer would form from radon gas exposure before you’d die from other causes.
But if you have young children and you’ve just moved into a new home, it’s a good idea to have your radon levels checked and addressed if they exceed 2.0 pCi/L. That’s because children are more susceptible to damage from higher radon levels than adults, and repeated early exposure may potentially result in lung cancer before they reach middle age.
If you’re a smoker, you should absolutely do everything you can to ensure that your radon gas exposure is as low as possible. Smoking and radon gas exposure is not a good mix. The chance of a smoker ending up with lung cancer is much higher than the rate for a non-smoker when radon gas is added into the mix.
According to the EPA, if 1,000 smokers had a radon gas exposure of 8 pCi/L over their lifetimes, it would result in approximately 120 people getting lung cancer. That same exposure in non-smokers would result in about 15 people out of 1,000 ending up with lung cancer.
Do Some Areas Have More Radon Gas?
Although radon gas can be found in any home in the U.S., some parts of the country have higher levels than others. Since radon gas can be so deadly, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a map to show where the greatest concentrations of radon can be found in the U.S.
Zone 1 shows locations with an average indoor level of greater than 4 (pCi/L). The states of Iowa and North Dakota, for instance, are completely in the higher-risk categories. Those in Zone 2 generally fall within a 2 to 4 pCi/L average. Arizona, New Mexico, and Missouri are almost entirely in this category. Some states – those in Zone 3 – have predicted radon gas average levels of less than 2 pCi/L. Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi generally fall into Zone 3.
But because it’s a preventable health risk, it’s a good idea to have your home levels checked. An inexpensive test can alert you to whether you have a problem.
Symptoms of Radon Exposure in Homes
One of the things that make radon gas a danger is that there are no symptoms to let you know there is a gas problem in your home.
You can’t smell it, and it won’t cause any discomfort for you until the damage is done. Instead, your first clue may be a lung cancer diagnosis and the symptoms that cancer may cause, such as a persistent cough, chest pain, weight loss, and shortness of breath.
Checking Your Home for Radon Gas
If you decide to have the radon gas levels tested in your home, there are two easy ways to do it:
- Buy a home testing kit: These are inexpensive kits you can find in stores or online. You’ll keep the testing kit for the recommended time length in the lowest floor of your home. Then you’ll mail it off and get an analysis sent to you with the results.
- Hire a professional: If you’re not the DIY type, call a home inspector to do the work for you. Make sure to find one certified from the National Radon Safety Board or the National Radon Proficiency Program.
Make Your Living Environment as Healthy as Possible
Many health issues are out of your hands, but lung cancer caused by radon gas isn’t one of them. A simple test and some not-so-expensive fixes can protect your health and the health of your loved ones for years to come.