January is National Radon Action Month

During National Radon Action Month, our nation is reminded of the serious danger that radon gas poses in our homes, according to Jeffrey R. Holmstead, assistant administrator at the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. The EPA estimates that radon causes about 20,00 deaths from lung cancer in the U.S. annually. Exposure to indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking, and the U.S. Surgeon General has warned that radon is a national health problem.

What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring odorless, tasteless, colorless radioactive gas. It is produced by the natural breakdown of radium in soil, rock and water. Many homes and other buildings, such as schools and offices, have high levels of radon. Because it’s odorless and invisible, and the lung cancer usually shows up over a long period of exposure, the danger of radon is often underestimated.

Radon can be drawn into the home from the soil below. Common entry points are cracks in concrete floors, utility access points, spaces around floor drains, sump pits, construction joints and tiny cracks in basement walls.

Radon gas is measured in picoCuries per liter (pCi/l). This is the unit of measurement of the amount of radiation present in each liter of air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established that when a home has a radon level of 4.0 pCi/l or higher, action should be taken to reduce it. There are easy and inexpensive ways to reduce radon levels in every home.

January 2006 is National & Illinois Radon Action Month. The EPA, Surgeon General and the State of Illinois are asking the media to help spread awareness of this invisible threat. Newspapers, television and radio stations are encouraged to broadcast stories, articles, and public service announcements (PSAs) about radon and encourage citizens to conduct this simple, inexpensive test.

Is a radon level of 4pCi/l really a threat?

From 1993 to 1997, the University of Iowa studied 1,027 Iowa women who lived in the same homes for 20 years or more. One group had cancer, the other didn’t. The study observed the subjects’ radon exposure. They concluded that at an average radon exposure of 4 pCi/l, an approximate 50 percent excess lung cancer risk was found after correcting for the impact of smoking.

No level of radiation exposure is considered safe. A family spends 12 hours per day, 340 days per year in a home with a radon level of 4 pCi/l will be exposed to more radiation than what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows for non-occupational nuclear plant workers (500mrem limit, 650mrem exposure), and 35 times as much airborne radiation allowed near a radioactive waste site.

How common are radon problems in Illinois?

AirChek Inc. has compiled the world’s most comprehensive database of radon test results. According to their records of more than 39,000 Illinois radon tests, more than 41 percent of the homes have levels that exceed the EPA’s action level. Furthermore, the database reveals that on average, Illinois’ indoor radon levels are four times higher than the national average.

According to the EPA map of radon zones and the U.S. Geological Survey, 52 Illinois counties are located in Radon Zones 1 and 2. In these counties, more than 20 percent of the homes have elevated radon levels. In some areas, as many as 90 percent of the homes are affected.

What are the health risks associated with radon exposure?

According to the Surgeon General of the United States, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking. Radon causes 15,000 to 22,000 deaths every year, more than any other in-home hazard. The World Health Organization classifies radon as a Group A carcinogen (a substance known to cause cancer in humans). The American Lung Association reports that 12 percent of all lung cancer deaths are linked to radon. In Illinois alone, radon causes 600 to 700 deaths each year. Radon-induced lung cancer is especially tragic because in most cases, it is preventabler.

How does radon induce cancer?

If inhaled, airborne radon decaya products become deeply lodged or trapped in the lungs, where the alphas radiate and penetrate the cells of the mucous membranes, bronchi and other pulmonary tissues.

The ionizing radiation energy affecting the bronchial epithelial cells initiates the process of the carcinogenesis. Although radon-related lung cancers are mainly seen in the upper airways, radon increases the incidence of all histological types of lung cancer including small cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and squamous call carcinoma.

More information about radon is available from: Environmental Protection Agency, Web site: www.epa.gov/iaq/radon —phone: 202-564-4355; National Safety Council, Web site: www.nsc.org/issues/radon —National Radon Help Line: 1-800-557-2366; Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), Web site: www.state.il.us/idns/html/radon/radon/asp —phone: 217-782-1325 or (800) 325-1245. E-mail: daniels@iema.state.il.us

From the Jan. 18-24, 2006, issue

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