Illinois resident Gloria Linnertz's husband, Joe, a nonsmoker, died six weeks after being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. A radon test a month after his death revealed he had been living with more than four times the Environmental Protection Agency action level of radon for 18 years and didn’t know it.
Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking. It is an invisible, odorless gas that can seep into various types of structures, including but not limited to basements, slabs and crawl spaces. The only way to know if it is present at dangerous levels is to test for it.
“We didn’t know this silent killer was living with us,” said Gloria, who founded Citizens for Radioactive Radon Reduction and helped lead the passage of the Illinois Radon Awareness Act, among other measures. Today, Gloria works tirelessly to educate the public about the dangers of radon.
About one in 15 homes in the U.S. has radon levels at or above the the EPA action level, according to the National Cancer Institute. You can't see or smell radon, and scientists estimate 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to it.
Radon is produced from a natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. It enters homes, offices, schools and other buildings through cracks in floors and walls, construction joints or gaps around service pipes, electrical wires and sump pits. The Environmental Protection Agency reports elevated levels of radon gas have been measured in every state and estimates nearly one out of every 15 homes in America has elevated radon levels.
People who breathe in these radioactive particles, swallow water with high radon levels or are exposed to radon for a long period of time are susceptible to lung damage and lung cancer. Smokers who are exposed to elevated levels of radon gas have a 10 times higher risk of developing lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
It may take years before health problems appear. Your chances of getting lung cancer from radon depend mostly on:
Old homes, new homes, homes with basements and homes without basements can have radon problems. Testing is the only way to determine how much radon is present.
Consider hiring a professional tester. Short-term (2-90 day) and long-term (more than 90-day) test kits are available, with the long-term kit producing more accurate results. The EPA website can help you find a radon test kit or measurement and mitigation professional near you. Do-it-yourself test kits also are available at many local hardware stores.
No level of radon exposure is considered completely safe, however the EPA only recommends reducing radon levels in your home if your long-term exposure averages 4 picocuries per liter (pCI/L) or higher. A pCI is a measure of the rate of radioactive decay of radon gas. This decay causes radioactive particles that can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe.
The American Cancer Society says a variety of methods can be used to reduce radon gas levels in your home, including sealing cracks in floors and walls and increasing ventilation though sub-slab depressurization using pipes and fans.
The EPA recommends using a state or nationally certified contractor, because lowering high radon levels often requires technical expertise and special skills. Two agencies have set the standard for participants seeking certification:
Always test again after the work is finished and then every two years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated January as National Radon Action Month, a time when health agencies across the country urge all Americans to have their homes tested for radon.