If there’s mold in the basement, that’s hard to ignore. When the roof leaks, you fix it. But a radon problem in your house is easy to miss.
The gas has no color, no taste, and no odor.
Still, when high concentrations of radon collect in a house, the gas becomes a concern. So public health experts are trying to get the word out: For non-smokers, radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer. And, it’s preventable.
“It’s not overly scary as long as we don’t get overdosed with it,” said Kurt Olinger, manger of the Radon Program for the Delaware Division of Public Health.
“It’s not going to cause any immediate symptoms,” said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.
“Lung cancer is what’s called a long latency-period cancer which means people can be exposed to the carcinogen, the thing that causes cancer, for decades before cancer starts to manifest itself,” Stewart said.
Radon is a soil gas that forms naturally as uranium and other core elements decay. Outdoors, the gas is all around us at low levels, and it seeps up from the ground into homes.
“Even a crack you might not be able to see would look like the Grand Canyon to radon, it’s quite easy for it to get into a foundation, you can’t basically seal it out,” said Bob Lewis, Radon Program Manager at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
He’s been telling people to test their home for radon for nearly 30 years. Mostly, they don’t do it, he says.
“Out of sight out of mind type thing, there’s no noticeable effect in the house, people just don’t listen to this message as well as we’d like them to,” Lewis said.
As radon breaks down some of the castoff particles float in the air, and we inhale them.
“The biggest surface available in the human body for them to stick to is really the inside of your lungs. It’s living cells in contact with the outside of world,” Stewart said.
Those radon decay particles that settle on the lungs are radioactive, which means they emit low-dose radiation.
“They are the kinds of things that can barrel into a cell and break apart a strand of DNA,” Stewart said. Damaged cells can multiply then form a cancer or a tumor, said Troy Moritz, a thoracic surgeon at PinnacleHealth System in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Much of his work is treating people with lung cancer.
Moritz says he doesn’t remember hearing much about radon when he was in medical school, but it’s a cancer risk you can do something about.
“If you are a smoker, quit today. If you have high radon levels, you need to find out about it,” he said.
Population studies have linked radon and lung cancer, but for an individual patient, doctors can’t definitely say what cause the tumor.
“That’s tough. It’s hard to say: ‘you have cancer. Sorry, I don’t know why,'” Moritz said. “But if you have a very high radon level in your house, or medium level over decades, and you’ve never smoked, you can take a leap of faith that radon may have been the cause.”
Every home needs to be checked.
“If your neighbor’s house is safe, that’s no guarantee that yours is,” Stewart said. “You need to do a test in your own house to find out what your radon level is.”
The potential for a radon problem varies community to community.
Maps on the Web site for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that across south Jersey, Delaware and in the city of Philadelphia, the average risk for a dangerous radon level is low or moderate.
But on the Pennsylvania map, about two-thirds of the state is colored red – indicating a zone with the highest potential for a problem.
Health educator Kevin Stewart says there’s something about much of Pennsylvania’s geology–certain characteristics of the soil and the amount of granite rock–that make radon health risks higher in some zip codes.
Lots of Pennsylvania homes also have a basement.
“If you have a basement that means there’s more surface area, not only the floor, but the walls are in contact with the ground. There’s more places for radon to enter,” Stewart said.
A short-term, do-it-yourself testing kit costs about $15 at the hardware store. The devices trap radon particles as they float by, then a few days later, you seal up the test and send it off to the lab.
Radon is measured in something called “picocuries per liter of air.” If the lived-in area of your home registers above 4 pCi/L, the government says you should call-in a state-certified mitigator to make a fix.
The E.P.A.’s Citizen’s Guide to Radon gives other guidance on what to do if testing suggests a moderate level of radon in your home.
Pennsylvania’s Radon Program Manager Bob Lewis says the next step may depend on where you find the problem.
“If you had the kids down there eight or 10 hours a day, then I, as a parent, would give more emphasis on fixing it. As opposed if it’s just an unfinished basement, I wasn’t spending much time down there,” Lewis said.
Olinger, from the Delaware Division of Public health, says homeowners can expect to pay about $1,200 to have their home retrofitted so radon gas is redirected from living spaces to the outdoors.
In Pennsylvania and Delaware, homeowners aren’t required to test their home for radon but both states have “radon disclosure” laws. If a seller has done a test they are required to reveal those results to a potential buyer.