January is radon action month. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has no odor, color or taste and is produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. Uranium is found in all soils and in higher concentrations in granite, shale and phosphates. As it decays into radon gas, it moves through the soil into the atmosphere, where it is harmlessly dispersed in outdoor air or it can enter buildings through foundation openings and become trapped inside.
Radon can enter through dirt floors, hollow block walls, cracks in the foundation floor and walls, sump pumps, openings around floor drains, joints and foundation openings for pipes, sewers and other utility connections. Radon can also enter homes through water supplies obtained from wells or from small water systems utilizing groundwater.
Radon breaks down into several radioactive elements called radon decay products, which are solid particles that become suspended in air. They are extremely small and easily inhaled, where they can attach to lung tissue. Radon is classified as a Group A carcinogen, a substance known to cause cancer in humans. According to EPA estimates, exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers and is responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year, more than drunk driving, household falls, drowning, or home fires.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Richard Carmona, urges Americans to test their homes to find out how much radon they might be breathing.
“Indoor radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the country,” Carmona said. “It’s important to know that this threat is completely preventable. Radon can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established venting techniques.”
Lung cancer is the only health effect which has been definitively linked with radon exposure. There is no evidence that other respiratory diseases, such as asthma, are caused by radon exposure and there are no immediate symptoms from exposure to radon. Smokers are at higher risk of developing radon-induced lung cancer. However, as with those who smoke, not everyone exposed to high levels of radon will develop lung cancer, and the time between exposure and the onset of cancer may be five to 25 years.
Free radon test kits are available at most University of Nevada Cooperative Extension offices or call 1-888-RADON10 (888-723-6610). For more information: http://www.unce.unr.edu/radon/.