Skip top navigation

Greenspace: Too many people still not testing for radon in homes

Radon wasn't always a household word - and for some, it still isn't, although it should be.

Better not to wind up like Stanley and Diane Watras.

In 1984, before anyone knew that the radioactive gas could make its way into homes, and that parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey are radon hot spots, Watras set off radiation alarms when he reported for work at the Limerick nuclear power plant, then under construction.

Subsequent investigation focused on his home in Boyertown, Berks County, where technicians found the highest radon levels they had yet seen in the United States - about 675 times the maximum level permitted in a uranium mine.

In a way, he was lucky. He was alerted to a problem he hadn't known he had.

Officials began testing more homes, and household radon testing became a national campaign that continues to this day.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that forms during the breakdown of naturally occurring uranium in soils and rocks.

Some rocks have just a little uranium. Some contain a lot.

The radon gets into homes through openings that touch the soil. Cracks and sump pits in basements are common sources, but homes on slabs can have problems, too.

The gas presents serious health risks. Its radioactive particles can get trapped in the lungs. As they break down further and release more energy, they damage tissue.

Exposure to residential radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, albeit still far behind cigarette smoking, according to the American Lung Association. The best estimate by officials is that radon causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year in the United States.

"Never-smokers who get lung cancer are naturally asking 'Why me?' " said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic. "I know people who have put two and two together and have identified radon as the chief, if not the only, logical suspect. Since never-smokers make up more and more of the population, I expect that group to increase."

Read the full article online: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/science/20140119_GreenSpace_.html