Radon in the Air

The death of Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve, has resulted in increased coverage by the news media on the causes of lung cancer.  The fact that Dana Reeve was a lifelong non-smoker, has prompted the media to focus more of their attention on other causes. 

The Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.  Only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths.  If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is especially high.  Radon causes an estimated 14,000 lung cancer deaths each year. 


Radon is a gas produced by the radioactive decay of the element Radium.  Uranium is the first element in a long series of decay that produces Radium and Radon.  Uranium takes about 4.4 billion years to decay to Radium.  Radium takes about 1620 years to decay to Radon.  The decay of Radon gas takes 3.8 days and produces radioactive Polonium.  Polonium is the element produced by Radon in the air we breathe that sticks to and hurts lung tissue and causes lung cancer and leukemia.  It is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas.


Radon is measured in picocuries (pCi). A picocurie is 1/1018th of an ounce of radon gas.  One pCi is equal to the decay of about 2 radioactive atoms/minute.


Radon is the earth's only naturally produced radioactive gas and comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water. You cannot see or smell radon, but it can become a health hazard when it accumulates indoors.  It can enter your home through cracks and openings in the foundation floor and walls.  When radon decays and is inhaled into the lungs, it releases energy that can damage the DNA in sensitive lung tissue and cause cancer.  Radon is found virtually everywhere.  Some areas have a higher concentration of radon in the air due to the permeability of soil (looseness) and the type of rock below.  Granite and phosphate rock are generally higher due to their higher uranium content.


Homes on hills, slopes, and bottoms of canyons have higher levels of radon gas due to highly permeable soils and fractured bedrock.  Radon gas flows towards a home’s foundation because of the difference in air pressure between the soil and the house and flows into the permeable soil around the foundation.  From there it flows into foundation cracks, utility entrances, seams between foundation materials, uncovered soil in the basement, and crawl spaces.


The indoor average of radon in the air is 1.5 pCi/Litre of air.  Short-term health effects of radon in the air aren’t known yet, but it is known that 10 years of exposure at 100pCi/L will cause severe lung damage.  Radon gas emissions from the ground are one of the top hazards for any property.  Radon gas is the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer in the US.  The EPA RECOMMENDS ALL HOMES BE MONITORED FOR RADON.  If it is found that there is less than 4 pCi/L then no action is necessary.  If above 4 pCi/L is found, follow up measures should be taken.  For information about what measure should be taken, contact your State Health or Environmental Dept. or visit www.epa.gov.iaq.radon or www.radon.com. Also the National Safety Council has a radon hotline at 800.557.2300 and you can talk to a radon expert. If a level of 20 pCi/L or greater has been found, the EPA recommends mitigation within 30 days.


Radon in human tissue is not detectable by routine medical testing.  However, several of its decaying byproducts i.e. (lead, polonium, and bismuth) can be detected in urine, lung, and bone tissue.

The increased risk of cancer you face can depend on the amount of radon in your home and the amount of time you spend there.

Since most people spend a great deal of time in their homes, the dose received there is very important. THE EFFECTS OF HIGH EXPOSURE TO RADON MAY NOT BECOME EVIDENT FOR YEARS, OR EVEN DECADES.


Particles of cigarette and other similar smoke provide an excellent vehicle for radon byproducts i.e. (lead, polonium, and bismuth) to enter the lungs where they can cause damage to the DNA structure of the lung cells. Smokers and passive non-smokers face greatly increased cancer rates. CHILDREN face the highest risks - the EPA estimates THAT CHILDREN MAY BE THREE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO DEVELOP CANCER THAN ADULTS IN THESE CONDITIONS, ON TOP OF THE PASSIVE SMOKING RISKS.

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