Radon Worries

Radioactive gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers

How much radioactive gas are you and your family breathing in your home? The answer probably isn’t “none”; in fact, in many parts of the Inland Northwest, the answer could be “quite a lot.”

The gas is radon — a naturally occurring radioactive gas created when atoms of the element radium go through radioactive decay. If there is radium in the ground, as there is throughout much of the Inland Northwest, radon may rise up into the air. Outdoors, this isn’t a problem. But if there’s a building on the ground, the radon can concentrate inside the building. Because radon is odorless and colorless, it can’t be detected by sight or smell. The only way to know the radon level in your house is to test for it.

Scientific studies and models agree that exposure to radon can increase a person’s chances of developing lung cancer. The Office of the Surgeon General, the American Lung Association, and many other national and international health organizations all agree on that, and the Environmental Protection Agency says that radon is responsible for about 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States every year. It’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer overall — and the leading cause among nonsmokers.

In the past, people often ignored radon because, as they say, “It’s natural.” But when a cell is hit by radiation, it doesn’t really care if the radiation came from a natural or artificial source. Most people are exposed to tens or even hundreds of times more radiation from radon than radiation from man-made sources such as X-rays. Because radon is floating in the air, the radiation it produces mostly affects the lungs, where the cells are particularly vulnerable.

Testing for radon is easy and fairly inexpensive. Do-it-yourself test kits are available online (search on “radon test kit”) and at most hardware and home improvement stores. And there are professionals who can test your home for you. Two organizations certify people to do radon work: the National Radon Safety Board (http://www.nrsb.org/) and the National Environmental Health Association (http://radongas.org/). Washington does not require that people be certified in order to do radon work professionally, but we do recommend using certified professionals when possible.

If your test shows that your home has elevated levels of radon, it’s usually pretty easy to have a system installed that will bring the levels down below the EPA action level (4 pico-Curies per liter, or 4 pCi/l). The system makes it harder for radon to get into your house and easier for it to get to the outside air. Both of the organizations above have listings of certified professional radon mitigation specialists. Again, certification is not required, but it is recommended.

If you’re buying a new home, you should make a radon test part of the inspection process. Testing then will assure you that the radon levels are acceptable — or if they’re not, a test will allow time for the house to be fixed before you move in. If you’re selling a house, consider having your home tested. A test showing that radon levels are acceptable can be a selling point.

New houses built in Spokane, Ferry, Okanogan, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, as well as Clark and Skamania counties in southwest Washington, are required to include features that make it harder for radon to concentrate in them. Even with these features, or with an existing radon system, you have to test to make sure they’re working and that the radon levels are low.

Mike Brennan is a Radiation Health Physicist at the Washington State Department of Health’sOffice of Radiation Protection. The Department of Health has more information about radon (www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/rp/environmental/radon.htm) on its Website; or, for more details, contact Mike Brennan at (360) 236-3253 or mike.brennan@doh.wa.gov.