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Radon and Lung Cancer: How Safe is Your Air

September 3, 2013

Orginally published Jan. 01, 2012

It’s toxic and deadly. But you can’t see it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it.

This harmful chemical is seeping into some homes in Georgia and scientists have linked this colorless, odorless and toxic gas to lung cancer. It’s called radon.

During the National Radon Action Month, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is raising awareness of its ongoing efforts statewide to address the concerns around radon in homes.

Radon comes from the decay of the natural radioactive element uranium found in some soils and rocks. Radon gas goes through radioactive decay and emits particles that can be harmful to the human body, primarily the lungs. It is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Radon can be found all over the United States in varying amounts. It can get into any type of structure and build up, resulting in a high indoor radon level.

The EPA goes on to report that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer and is responsible for over 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year.

“Radon is a naturally occurring gas from soil and rocks,” said Rebecca Morely, Executive Director of the National Center for Healthy Housing. “Radon damages the cells that line the lungs and that leads to lung cancer. Radon becomes trapped in homes and it becomes a problem.”

“Georgians should have their homes checked for radon,” said DPH Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D. “This toxic gas enters into our homes through cracks in the basement, crawl space, and pipes leading into the shower head and into the water.”

Jane M. Perry, Chemical Hazards Director, told PHWEEK that DPH is doing its part to educate about radon. Through DPH’s Chemical Hazards Program (CHP), Georgians are finding out about what to do if they suspect that there are elevated radon levels in their homes or they want to get their homes checked for peace of mind.

“CHP is working in Public Health District 5-2 to promote radon in indoor air testing in Monroe County,” explained Perry. “In particular, UGA Cooperative Extension is providing private well testing for uranium in response to Monroe County residents’ concerns about elevated uranium levels in private water wells.” Monroe County is one of thirteen counties in Public Health District 5-2 and North Central Georgia.

Radon gas is more common in northern Georgia because of geology and soil composition. Most uranium in Georgia is found in this region, especially in the metro Atlanta area.

DPH recommends that you seal cracks and openings in a building’s foundation to prevent radon from entering. Open windows and use exhaust fans to reduce exposure until permanent ventilation improvements are completed. If necessary, a radon reduction system can be permanently installed.
According to CHP, Georgians can be exposed to radon from breathing air or from drinking water. Radon is most harmful to residents when inhaled. Radon gets into homes and other buildings through cracks or openings in the foundation. If not ventilated outside, radon can build up indoors to harmful levels.

Drinking water containing radon is much less of a health risk than inhaling radon. However, radon can also get into indoor air from water containing radon, mostly during bathing, cleaning and cooking.
Radon gas is heavier than air. Small children are at greater risk for radon exposure because they breathe air closer to the ground where levels are highest, and they breathe a greater volume of air in relation to their body size.

Perry also told PHWEEK that DPH’s Tobacco Unit and Epidemiology Branch are evaluating lung cancer data in Georgia for any connections to radon. Moreover, DPH is providing all residents with radon testing information. Other partners involved in radon testing and awareness are the UGA Cooperative Extension, Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and the EPA.

“Radon cannot be removed or destroyed but should be vented to outdoor air,” said Perry. “Test your home for radon is our prevention message. If the level is elevated, mitigate to reduce the radon level.”

To speak to a chemical hazards program staff, please contact Jane M. Perry at jmperry@dhr.state.ga.us or (404) 657-2700.