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Radon Reality: Why the Overlooked Gas Is a Health Hazard

Radon is invisible to the eye and has no odor. And even though it began worrying Americans starting in the 1980s, its mysterious ways seem misunderstood to this day. Yet according to UR Medicine’s Environmental Health Sciences Center, radon gas is second only to cigarette smoke as the leading cause of lung cancer. In the United States, radon is responsible for about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

Two years ago, in a remote Kazakhstan village, residents began falling asleep for days at a time. Tests showed that villagers had an excessive accumulation of fluid in their brains, causing dizziness, inability to stand, fatigue and memory problems. Scientists first thought a virus or bacteria was to blame. Eventually, they concluded that radon from a nearby Soviet-era uranium mine had seeped up to the surface and was poisoning the villagers.

In the United States, initial reports of radon-related deaths caused anxiety. Fairly quickly, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered 1986 estimates of radon-related deaths and the number of contaminated homes. With that, many Americans forgot about radon contamination except as a footnote when buying a home.

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