Asbestos Exposure & Bans

Radon Exposure in Homes Across America Still Leading to Lung Cancer

Written By:
Jan 15, 2013
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
January 15, 2013

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week intensified its campaign to reduce exposure to radon by urging homeowners across America to test for the dangerous gas.

Exposure to radon is second only to smoking as the most common cause of lung cancer. The EPA estimates that one in 15 American homes has an elevated level of radon gas.

“Testing for radon is one of the easiest and smartest things people can do to protect their homes and families from this serious health risk,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in a press release Monday. “Addressing high radon levels greatly reduces exposure.”

Dangerous levels of radon can occur within homes, schools and other buildings from the natural decaying of uranium in the soil and rocks beneath, seeping in through foundation cracks and causing serious health issues. The radioactive gas is both odorless and colorless, often going undetected.

There are approximately 225,000 people in the United States diagnosed annually with lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death, according to the American Cancer Society.

Radon Threat Is Real

An estimated 80 percent of lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking, while an exposure to radon gas and asbestos fibers rank second and third, respectively. The EPA estimates that 21,000 Americans die annually from radon-related lung cancer.

The risk from both radon and asbestos also is considerably higher for people who smoke. And studies have shown that the risk for lung cancer is higher in areas where there are natural uranium deposits, which can be almost anywhere.

Radon decays naturally into radioactive particles that can accumulate in homes and buildings, then become trapped in the lungs when they are unknowingly inhaled. They can damage lung tissues and lead to cancer. Unlike asbestos, radon is not considered dangerous outdoors, where it becomes less concentrated and dissipates quickly. It is most dangerous in the basement of homes.

The efforts by the EPA to dramatically reduce radon exposure are relatively new. The Federal Radon Action Plan was not introduced until 2011. Its goal was reducing radon risk in homes, schools and daycare facilities, along with encouraging radon-resistant new construction. It includes both new commitments for future actions, along with the current federal government actions.

In that Action Plan, the federal government hopes to provide economic incentives for businesses to test and support the risk reduction plans; build a demand for the radon services industry; and demonstrate to the public the value and feasibility of radon testing.

EPA Calling For Action

The EPA Monday used National Radon Action Month to encourage the public to take these steps:

  • Test: All buildings should be tested, with or without basements. Hardware and home-improvement stores offer affordable do-it-yourself test kits. The National Radon Program at Kansas State University offers discounted test kits online. Certified radon testers can be hired, too.
  • Fix: Radon levels above 4 picoCuries per Liter (pCi/L) should be fixed by a qualified radon-reduction contractor.
  • Save A Life: By addressing elevated levels of radon, you can prevent lung cancer while creating a healthier home and community.

The EPA has a national map on its website that details the areas where the greatest potential for radon exposure are.

The EPA was part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first call-to-action initiative in 2009 that brought considerable global attention to the problem of radon and lung cancer. The WHO estimated that 14 percent of the lung cancer cases worldwide were caused by radon.

A handbook was produced and designed to help countries expand or establish radon reduction programs, providing detailed recommendations and policy options. In part, it was aimed at the construction industry, helping them with ventilation and foundation tips that could prevent radon entry.

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