Radon and Lung Cancer

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: December 17, 2023

Radon is a naturally occurring odorless (no smell), colorless radioactive gas. Usually, radon comes from the breakdown of rock and soil. Indoor radon can also come from coal combustion, gas appliances, and private well water. Radon moves up from the ground into homes, where it becomes trapped and builds up. This exposes people in the house to its cancer-causing potential. The levels of radon can vary greatly in different areas of the world. The type of foundation and the energy efficiency in your home is also important. A less energy-efficient home and a better-ventilated foundation both allow the radon gas to exit the house. Because of this, two homes next door to each other could have different levels of radon in the indoor air.

After tobacco use, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. It is thought to cause over 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year. Radon can build up in new and old homes and those with OR without a basement.

Testing for Radon

The only way to know if your home has radon is to have it tested. This is done using a kit or having a radon professional do the test. Many areas have laws requiring radon testing before a house is sold. If radon is found in levels above 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter), a qualified radon professional can install a removal system. This vents the gas to the outside using a pipe and fan system. Because it is not clear what level of radon is safe, the EPA recommends that people consider a removal system for a level of 2 pCi/L or higher.

The risk of lung cancer for a smoker with radon exposure can be 10 times higher than a non-smoker with radon exposure. Tell your healthcare provider if you have been exposed to high levels of radon. People who have been exposed to radon, and are current or former smokers, may be able to have CT scans to screen for lung cancer. This test may help find cancer at an early stage, when it may be more treatable. This screening is not currently recommended to non-smokers. It is also very important to let your healthcare provider know if you start having any symptoms, such as shortness of breath, new or worsening cough, chest tightness or pain, hoarse voice, or having a hard time swallowing.

Resources for More Information

References

American Cancer Society. Radon and Cancer. 2015. Found at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/radon.html

Choi, H. U. M. B. E. R. T. O., & Mazzone, P. (2014). Radon and lung cancer: assessing and mitigating the risk. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 81(9), 567-575.

Medline Plus. Radon. 2017. Found at: https://medlineplus.gov/radon.html

Riudavets, M., Garcia de Herreros, M., Besse, B., & Mezquita, L. (2022). Radon and lung cancer: current trends and future perspectives. Cancers, 14(13), 3142.

Ruano-Ravina, A., Martin-Gisbert, L., Kelsey, K., Pérez-Ríos, M., Candal-Pedreira, C., Rey-Brandariz, J., & Varela-Lema, L. (2023). An overview on the relationship between residential radon and lung cancer: what we know and future research. Clinical and Translational Oncology, 25(12), 3357-3368.

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