One of the most common questions we get from homeowners is: what effect will radon have on my health? A question like this is very difficult to answer, because many factors impact the negative health effects of radon including the concentration of exposure, length of exposure and outside factors that act to increase the negative effects. While we can’t predict the future and tell you what radon exposure will mean to your personally, there have been plenty of studies to show the dangers of radon and how they impact certain groups of people. In this article, we will discuss those effects, but first, we want to give a brief explanation of what radon is.
What is Radon?
Radon is a gas that is invisible, odorless and tasteless. Since it is formed from the decay of uranium, it is a radioactive element that carries the same dangerous properties as other radioactive elements like uranium and plutonium. As uranium breaks down and releases radon gas, it infiltrates through the ground and rises to enter our atmosphere. While radon exists in the air all around us, it doesn’t typically become a problem until it accumulates and becomes confined in a building such as a home, school or business. These buildings can accumulate radon at unsafe levels unless it is properly mitigated and removed from the building.
Lung Cancer Risks
In the United States, lung cancer remains one of the most dangerous forms of cancer with 5-year survival rates being very low when compared to other forms of cancer. It is estimated that after diagnosis, only 11 to 15 percent of patients will survive for five years or longer. Although the prognosis is bleak after being diagnosed with lung cancer, the upside is that lung cancer is highly preventable. The leading cause of lung cancer in the United States is due to smoking, which is 100% preventable. Radon exposure is the number two cause of lung cancer in the United States, and luckily, it is also highly preventable.
One study has estimated the number of deaths attributed to lung cancer from radon at 21,000 each year. This is a significant number of deaths across the country that could have been prevented with simple testing and mitigation.
One interesting fact about radon exposure is that smoking and radon actually work together to damage your body and are much more damaging when combined compared to their effects on their own. The risks of lung cancer and death increase substantially for a smoker who is exposed regularly to radon. The effect is synergistic, which means that the damage done together is greater than the sum of the two parts. To give you an example to put this in perspective, according to data from the EPA and CDC, if you are a smoker and exposed to 4 pCi/L of radon over your lifetime, your risk of cancer is approximately 5 times as much as your risk of dying in a car crash. On the other hand, if you don’t smoke and are only exposed to 4 pCi/L of radon over your lifetime, your chances of cancer are the same as your chances of dying in a car crash. The difference amounts to 5X more just from combining smoking with radon exposure!
Risks in Children
While the effects of radon exposure will typically not be observed until later in life, children are at an increased risk for lung cancer later on if they are exposed to radon as a child. The respiration rate of children is higher than that of adults, which could lead to more radon being inhaled. Their lungs are also smaller, which can increase the amount of damage due to exposure. When second-hand smoke and radon are combined, the risk of future cancer in children increases substantially. This synergistic effect is similar to that seen in adults where combining two carcinogens in your lungs leads to a greater possibility of developing lung cancer in the future.
Fortunately, the health effects associated with radon exposure can be nearly eliminated by properly mitigating radon within your home. While you cannot control if radon is found in the soil below your home, you can control where the gas goes when it gets to your home. For the health benefits that it provides, a radon mitigation system is a relatively inexpensive upgrade to your home that has the ability to keep you and your family safe from the health impacts of radon.