You may be living in a home that could be raising your risk of developing lung cancer even if you are not a smoker or live with someone who does. What is the cause? An odorless, colorless, radioactive gas called radon. Radon gas has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon General’s Office as the second leading cause of lung cancer. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year are caused by this dangerous gas that could be a problem in your home.
What is radon?
Radon is the heaviest known gas – nine times denser than air. It is made up of a single atom (unlike oxygen, O2, composed by two atoms) and can easily penetrate common materials such as paper, leather, plastic bags, most paints, and building materials like sheetrock, concrete blocks, mortar, wood paneling, and most insulations.
Naturally occurring, radon comes from the natural breakdown (radioactive decay) of uranium. Igneous rock and soil is usually where it is found but well water is another known source of it also.
The main way we as humans are exposed to radon is through inhalation and ingestion. Radon is able to enter working and living spaces through the ground, groundwater, or building materials where it disintegrates into its decay products.
Radon and lung cancer
Every year thousands of people will die from lung cancer with smoking or being exposed to second-hand smoke the leading causes of it. The most recent statistics available for lung cancer is 2012 where it was estimated 157,423 people died from this disease. At least 60 percent of lung cancers diagnosed occur in those who either have never smoked or quit smoking in the past. Exposure to radon in the home is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Lung cancer is the only known risk of exposure to radon.
Lung cancer can be treated but the survival rate is one of the lowest for all cancers. From the time of diagnosis, between only 11 and 15 percent of those afflicted with lung cancer will live beyond five years.
The way radon causes lung cancer is from particles radon produces as it decays called alpha particles.
The alpha particles easily bind to air dust and other particles in the air. When we inhale air contaminated with these particles, the particles can damage the tissue inside our trachea and lungs that could potentially lead to lung cancer.
How to tell if radon is in your home
Since radon is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, the only way to know if your home has high levels of it is to have it tested for radon. Most homes will contain some levels of radon but until the level is tested, it is hard to know how much is these.
There are commercial radon testing devices most hardware stores sell that measure radon levels in homes. Radon levels can be checked anytime of the year but the best time is to test during the winter when there is generally less ventilation in the home.
To reduce levels of radon within your home, here are some steps one can take:
- Seal cracks and holes found in walls, floors, drains, and pipes. This can help minimize radon from seeping into living rooms from the basement.
- Renovate existing basement floors, particularly earth floors.
- Increase ventilation in the subfloors beneath the basement.
- Install a device that sucks radon from the lowest space in the basement.
- Avoid using exhaust fans for a continuous amount of time.
- When you are not using the fireplace, shut the chimney damper.
- Open up windows to allow more airflow into the house
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team Learn more at roboticoncology.com. Visit Dr. Samadi’s blog at SamadiMD.com. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.