Radon – The Invisible Cause of Cancer

radonhomeBy Kerry L. Clay, PA-C,
DCMH Thoracic Surgical Oncology Program

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.

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.

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.