The Health Risks of Radon

Radon - What You Need to Know Series

We get it. Most of us don’t know much about Radon.

If you are like most people, you have a vague idea what radon is and know it is possibly dangerous to your health. Even though we have known about the risks posed by radon in homes for 30 years or so, public awareness is still quite low. Oddly, while many of us worry about things like the dye in our foods we give little thought to the radioactive gas we are breathing in our homes.

This is not the PhD in radon but the field guide or the handbook.

Radon Exposure Compared to Number of Cigarettes Smoked Per Day

What do I need to know?

While you can find much more information on our site if you are interested, this is the “Radon 101” you need to make informed decisions about Radon for your family.

The Health Risks of Radon

What is the primary risk from Radon Exposure?

Over time, exposure to elevated Radon levels increases your chance of getting lung cancer.

Lung Cancer and Radon:

Radon is a radioactive gas (see What Radon Is). This means it emits radiation. Simply put, these radioactive emissions can damage our DNA. This DNA damage can lead to the onset of cancer.

The odd part about radioactive elements is they actually change what element they are as they emit radiation. This is because they emit protons, neutrons, or electrons as radiation. Because we define elements based on counting these particles the element actually changes.

Radon emits what is called an alpha particle when it decays. Alpha particles are a proton and a neutron and have much higher energy than x-rays. In fact, alpha particles travel at half of the speed of light and each have enough energy to dent bulletproof glass.

Much of the danger from Radon actually comes from what it decays into. Radon decays into solids sometimes called radon daughters. Because radon is a gas and turns into a solid, it forms a very fine radioactive dust. We breath this dust into our lungs. These radon daughters continue to decay and emit radiation directly into our lung tissue.

Our lung cells are particularly sensitive to damage from radiation. This radiation can either pass harmlessly through our cells, kill the cell it hits, or damage our DNA. It is this damage to our DNA that can lead to lung cancer.

For non smokers the EPA estimates that:

  • at a radon level of 1.3 pCi/l (the average radon level in homes in the US), about 2 out of 1000 will get lung cancer;
  • at a radon level of 4 pCi/l, about 7 out of a 1000 will get it; and
  • at a radon level of 8 pCi/l,  about 15 out of a 1000 will get lung cancer.

While 15 out of 1000 is still thankfully a low percentage, the risk of getting lung cancer for non smokers increases over 700% when exposed long term to radon levels of 8 pCi/l. If you want more information on this measurement check out our article How to Understand Your Radon Levels.

The risk from radon exposure to current or even former smokers is much worse. If you have ever smoked please have your home tested for radon.

Lung Cancer

While any cancer is a bad diagnosis, Lung Cancer is the most deadly of the most common cancers. Basically, your chance of surviving lung cancer is low when compared to other common cancers like breast cancer. The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 56 percent for cases detected when the disease is still localized (within the lungs). However, only 16 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. For distant tumors (spread to other organs) the five-year survival rate is only 5 percent.

Sadly, it is estimated that over 21,000 people in the US die from lung cancer caused by radon exposure.

How can I know if I need to worry about Radon?

Good question, the next article in this series tells you how to find out.

Click here to read about How to Test for Radon.

*Disclaimer: All content in this report, including: text, images, audio, or other formats were created for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.

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