Radon and Lung Cancer

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

Radon is a naturally occurring odorless (no smell), colorless radioactive gas. Most times, 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. It exposes the 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. 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.

To find out more about radon and radon testing in your home, visit the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) website. To learn more about radon and radon exposure, see the list of national organizations compiled by the American Cancer Society at ACS Radon Information.

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.

Doege, T. C., & Hendee, W. R. (1988, January). Radon in homes: determining risks and preventing exposures. In Seminars in nuclear medicine (Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 10-15). WB Saunders.

Hendee, W. R., & Doege, T. C. (1988, January). Origin and health risks of indoor radon. In Seminars in nuclear medicine (Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 3-9). WB Saunders.

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

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction. 2016. Found at: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-12/documents/2016_consumers_guide_to_radon_reduction

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