Matthew Vernon, MD | Health matters: Radon, the hidden danger

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Radon is a dangerous radioactive gas produced by the decay of naturally occurring uranium and thorium. Present in nearly all soils and, at very low levels, in the air we breathe, radon is literally all around us. The radon we breathe in can continue on in the steps of radioactive decay, and the radiation it emits in our lungs can increase our risk of lung cancer. The more you breathe in, the greater the risk. In fact, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking. Approximately 90 percent of lung cancers are attributable to tobacco use; most of the remaining 10 percent can likely be attributed to radon exposure.

Radon can be found in any home of any age, size, or location. It seeps from the soil into homes directly through concrete, basements, crawl spaces, and gaps in the walls or foundation. The level of radon in the home increases as more and more gas becomes trapped in the structure over time. Because radon is about 7.5 times heavier than air, it tends to sink downward and accumulate in basements. And because it is colorless and odorless, you could be living with very elevated levels for years and not know it.

Fortunately, radon testing kits are readily available at most hardware stores and online. Kits are relatively inexpensive (roughly $15 to $30) and easy to use. You simply place a measuring device in your home and leave it there for a period of time, usually 48 hours to 90 days. Longer testing — up to a year — yields more accurate results. At the end of the testing period, you mail the device to the designated laboratory for analysis. Results will be returned to you along with recommendations for addressing any detected levels in your home.

Recommended actions range from increasing air flow in your home and sealing cracks with plaster, caulk or other recommended materials. In cases where levels are extremely elevated, a radon mitigation system may be recommended. If levels in your home warrant a system, the EPA recommends you hire a qualified radon mitigation contractor to do the work as failing to install the system properly can actually increase radon levels or create other potential problems.

While radon most often enters the home through the soil, it can also be found in water. Radon in the water poses the greatest risk from inhalation, not ingestion. Radon particles can be released when water is used for showering or other household tasks.

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Most public water systems treat water supplies for radon. But if you have a private ground well, it is possible there is radon in your water. If you'd like to get your water tested, contact The Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791. They can provide phone numbers for your state laboratory certification office.

You can also call the National Radon Program Services Hotline, 800-SOS-RADON, for your state radon office's phone number. Your state laboratory certification office or state radon office can direct you to laboratories that are able to test your drinking water for radon.

If your water has elevated levels of radon, it can be removed using aeration treatment or a granular activated carbon (GAC) filter. Both treatments will need to be installed where the water enters your home to ensure all water is treated.

To learn more about radon in your area and home, visit: epa.gov/radon.

Matthew Vernon, MD, is a radiation oncologist at the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center, part of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.


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