A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

The effect of radon on health

Radon is found in the air and in homes across the United States. If present in your home, increasing your risk for lung cancer is the primary effect of radon on your health. However, radon testing your home and installing a radon mitigation system if needed could prevent future illness.

Illustration - three homes, one is yellow to show radon

If present in your home, increasing your risk for lung cancer is the primary effect of radon on your health.

What’s radon, and how does it cause lung cancer?

Radon is a radioactive gas. It gives off radiation released as part of the normal decay process of certain elements, like uranium, thorium and radium, which are found in rocks in soil.

“Radon is an invisible, odorless and tasteless gas that seeps up through the ground and diffuses into the air,” said Dr. Omesh Toolsie, pulmonologist with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “In some areas, depending on local geology, radon dissolves into ground water and can be released into the air when water is used.”

It decays quickly, which gives off radioactive particles. When those particles are inhaled, it can damage the cells that line the lung. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer.

“This is the only cancer proven to be associated with inhaling radon,” Dr. Toolsie said. “In addition to radon exposure, cigarette smoking further increases your risk of lung cancer than exposure to either factor alone.”

Not everyone who is exposed to elevated levels will develop lung cancer. The time between exposure and onset of the disease may be many years.

Do I have elevated radon levels in my home?

Nearly one in 15 homes across the United States has elevated levels.

The problem affects both old and new homes in every state, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Do-it-yourself radon testing kits are sold at hardware stores. You also can hire a professional to check levels in your home.

“Radon testing is the only way to know if a person’s home has elevated levels. Indoor levels are affected by the soil composition under and around the house and the ease in which radon enters the house,” said Dr. Toolsie.

Homes that are next to each other can have different indoor levels. Do not use your neighbor’s test as a predictor of your own levels.

Rain, snow, barometric pressure and other influences can cause levels to vary from month-to-month. Short and long term radon tests are available.

What should I do about elevated levels in my home?

The EPA recommends taking action to reduce radon in homes that have levels at or above 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L).

“Radon levels less than 4 picocuries per liter still pose a risk, but in many cases may be reduced,” Dr. Toolsie said.

Choose a qualified contractor to install a radon mitigation system to fix your home. Mitigation systems can reduce levels to near zero.

How do I know the effect of radon on my health?

No tests are commonly-available to measure whether you have been exposed to radon. If there is a confirmed exposure in your home, talk to your health care provider.

Radon exposure may cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest tightness or chest pains, a new or worsening cough, difficulty swallowing or hoarseness.

“Your provider can determine if additional testing, like a chest X-ray, pulmonary function test or CT scan of the chest is necessary,” Dr. Toolsie said.

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