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Radon safety: Protecting your health

Last Modified: 1/09/2021

radon

Did you know January is National Radon Action Month? To help educate and bring awareness to the community, Anna Belote, director, Safety, Parkview Health, shared the following information about the potentially hazardous material, provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What is radon?

You can't see or smell radon, but scientists estimate 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the U.S. attributed to it. Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas. It forms naturally from the breakdown of radioactive elements, such as uranium. For this reason, radon gas is present in soil and rock throughout the world and can move to the air, underground water and surface water.

Where is radon present?

Radon is present both outside and indoors. Very low levels of radon exist in the air outside and drinking water from rivers and lakes. Higher levels reside in the air inside houses, buildings and underground water sources like wells.

Radon will then break down into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny. These elements can attach to dust, and other particles then breathed into the lungs. As radon and radon progeny in the air breakdown, they give off radiation that can damage the DNA inside the body’s cells.

How does radon get into your home?

Radon can enter homes through cracks in floors, walls or foundations and collect inside. It can also be released from building materials or from water obtained from wells that contain radon. Radon levels can be higher in homes that are well insulated, tightly sealed and/or built on soil rich in elements like uranium, thorium and radium. Basements and first floor levels typically have the highest radon levels because of their proximity to the ground.

How can you test for radon in your home?

Any home, old or new, can have radon problems. Testing is the only way to determine how much radon is present. Short-term and long-term test kits are available, with the long-term kits producing more accurate results. You might also consider hiring a professional tester to help with the process. The EPA has some resources on their website to help you find a radon test kit or mitigation professional near you. DIY test kits are also available at most local hardware stores.

Additionally, no level of radon exposure is considered completely safe. However, the EPA only recommends reducing radon levels in your home if your long-term exposure averages four picocuries per liter (pCI/L) or higher. A pCI is a measure of the rate of radioactive decay of radon gas. This decay causes radioactive particles that can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe.

Where can people find more information about radon?

The National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University is funded by the EPA and aimed at promoting public awareness of radon, increased testing, and radon reduction in homes, schools, and buildings. It provides a variety of resources, including the National Radon Hotlines, referrals to state radon programs, radon test kit orders, radon mitigation promotion and other technical assistance and outreach activities. For more information on radon and radon safety, please the EPA’s website.

What should I do if exposed to radon?

Currently, there are no widely available medical tests to measure radon exposure. With that said, if you smoke and were exposed to higher radon levels, you must try to quit. The combined effects of cigarette smoking and radon exposure raise your risk of lung cancer much more than either exposure alone.

However, if you think you’ve experienced high radon exposure levels over long periods, please speak with your doctor about getting regular health checkups and tests to look for possible signs of lung cancer. Also, be aware of potential signs and symptoms of lung cancer, such as shortness of breath, a new or worsening cough, pain or tightness in the chest, hoarseness, or trouble swallowing, and tell your doctor if you start to have any of these symptoms.

Helpful references

National Safety Council

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