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Health Matters: Radon, the Invisible Cause of Cancer

Think you’re protected from lung cancer because you never smoked? When we hear that someone has been diagnosed with lung cancer, we automatically assume that this person was a smoker. It is true that cigarette smoking is the number-one cause of increased risk of lung cancer. In fact, it accounts for 85-90 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses. So what accounts for the remainder? Every day, the second-most-common cause of lung cancer is right under our feet: radon gas. It is reported that one out of every 15 homes in our country has elevated levels of radon gas.

Lung cancer continues to affect the lives of too many people in the United States. Lung cancer is the second-most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women; however, it is the number-one cause of cancer deaths in both men and women (behind prostate and breast respectively). In 2012, more Americans died from lung cancer than from prostate, breast, colon and pancreatic cancers combined. The Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA) has estimated that, every day, 448 people die from this cruel disease.

Radon has been a known carcinogen and health hazard for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the President’s Cancer Panel and the World Health Organization (WHO) have identified radon as a serious health risk and the second-leading cause of lung cancer, accounting for approximately 21,000 cases yearly. At the 17th National Radon Conference in 2007, Pennsylvania was listed as the second-highest state with lung cancer deaths attributed to radon, with 1,465 deaths.

So what exactly is radon and where does it come from? Radon is a naturally occurring gas that is the result of the decay of uranium. It is found in soil, rocks and water. In the outdoor setting, it is relatively harmless. When it enters homes or even schools and office buildings the concentration is increased, and when it gets into the air we breathe it can easily damage sensitive lung cells—killing them or causing mutations that can lead to cancer. Radon gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless. It can enter our homes undetected through cracks and holes in the foundation or floors. Levels of the gas are found to be the highest in basements, crawl spaces and attics.

As we now know, radon gas is naturally occurring, however, levels have been found to be elevated in areas where man has enhanced the uranium environment. Pennsylvania had uranium and radium extraction facilities that were operated before and after the Manhattan Project (1942-1945). In December 1984, the Limerick nuclear generating station was still under construction. Workers entered the site through radiation monitors every day. One particular gentleman consistently set off the alarms. This became a concern, so his family home was checked and radon levels of over 2,600 picoCuries/Liter of air (pCi/L) were detected. The average outdoor level of radon is 4pCi/L. This is the highest level ever found in a private residence. Calculations were performed on this level of exposure, and the risk of developing lung cancer is 13 out of 100. The family left the home until levels of radon were at a safe level. All neighboring homes were checked as well.

Nationally, the average outdoor radon level is 4 pCi/L. For any home that tests at this level or above, the EPA recommends installation of a venting or mitigation system. In 2010, WHO made recommendations to lower this acceptable level to 2.7 pCi/L.

Congress passed the Indoor Radon Reduction Act (IRRA) in 1988. Eighty million dollars in matching grants were made available to states to encourage builders and realtors to test homes and buildings for radon before the titles were transferred to the purchasing party. This program was voluntary; less than 3 percent of the homes built up to 2011 included radon-reducing equipment. Radon concerns are not dependent on the age of the home; it can be a problem in both older and new construction.

What is the risk of developing lung cancer by radon exposure? As you may guess, the risk of developing lung cancer is much lower due to radon exposure than cigarette smoke exposure; however, the risk of radon is much higher in people who smoke than those who do not. Also, the risk is higher in individuals who have lived for many years in radon-contaminated houses. The longer the duration of exposure and the higher the concentration of exposure leads to increased risk. The lifetime risk of developing lung cancer per 100,000 people in an average environment of 4pCi/L in “Never Smokers” is 7, in “Current Smokers” is 62 and in the general population is 23.

You should also be aware that radon at lower levels can enter the home in the water supply. This mostly occurs through underground sources of water such as private wells. Public water supplies are mostly from surface waters and do not contain radon. The water supplies can also be tested and treated for radon.

At this time there is no simple medical test to determine if someone has been exposed to radon. Any concerns should be discussed with your primary care physician. Possible symptoms would be those also associated with lung cancer – shortness of breath, cough, frequent colds, bronchitis or pneumonia, chest pain, shoulder pain, hoarseness or even trouble swallowing.

If you are a smoker, it is always a good idea to quit for many reasons, but especially if you feel you have had exposure to high levels of radon. For the health and safety of you and your family, consider getting your home checked for radon levels. It should be noted that these levels may vary from day to day and season to season. There are professional services available to help you check your home and remedy any problematic radon levels. By doing this you have taken steps to fight the prevalence of lung cancer in our area.

Read more here: http://www.delconewsnetwork.com/articles/2013/06/27/life/doc51cc8d9c5a0f0146822762.txt?viewmode=fullstory