Understanding your risk of radon exposure, the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer

Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, but the second leading cause is radon, a radioactive gas.
Published: Mar. 6, 2020 at 10:54 PM EST
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LYNDON, Ky. (WAVE) – Kentucky leads the nation in the rate of new lung cancer cases and lung cancer mortality. Indiana is not far behind the Bluegrass State.

Smoking, of course, is the leading cause of lung cancer, but the second-leading cause is something many people may have never heard of: radon. The chemical element is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Radon is colorless, odorless and tasteless, and the radioactive gas is a problem people never know they have unless they test for it.

“We’ve lived here for 18 years,” homeowner Howard Gittli explained to WAVE 3 News, sitting comfortably next to his wife Lisa.

The Gittlis have lived in Lyndon, Kentucky for almost two decades.

“Lisa's mom lives with us, and we have animals and pets,” Howard revealed.

After watching WAVE Country with Dawne Gee one afternoon on WAVE 3 News, the couple began to think not only about their own neighborhood but specifically their own home’s exposure to radon. They said they were aware of neighbors who had their homes tested for it, some of which ended up having dangerously high levels of the deadly gas.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It enters a home through cracks or openings in the foundation, slab or sump pump. When that happens, the chemical gas can accumulate at dangerous levels.

“We recommend for everyone to test their home for radon,” Kyle Hoylman from President of the Kentucky Association of Radon and Founder of Protect Environmental stressed.

Radon kits can be used to measure a home’s levels.

“You set it up in the lowest level at your home,” Hoylman explained.

The Gittlis purchased a home test for radon immediately following the show they watched on WAVE 3 News, and they were shocked when they received their radon analysis report.

A safe level of radon gas is no radon gas, but it is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that is in the air all around us. When it comes to understanding the risk for radon exposure, it’s all about the numbers. It is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). 4.0 pCi/L equals 200 chest x-rays per year or eight cigarettes per day. It’s also the level at which the EPA recommends a home be fixed to reduce exposure.

The Gittli home’s average radon level was 21.6 pCi/L.

“That is a radiation dose equivalent to about 1000 chest x-rays a year,” Hoylman said.

Neither the number nor the news sat well with the Gittlis.

“I was very surprised,” Lisa proclaimed. “I did a little research and found out that it causes lung cancer.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon causes more than 20 thousand deaths a year in the US.

“It's responsible here in Kentucky for 700 new lung cancer incidents per year,” Hoylman stressed. “It's responsible for about 500 deaths.”

Radon has no immediate symptoms that will alert someone of its presence, and it takes years of exposure before any problems become apparent.

“I've been concerned that maybe after all this time not having the test could it affect us down the road,” Howard said with unease. “Hopefully not.”

The ten states with the highest levels of radon are:

  • Alaska
  • South Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Washington
  • Montana
  • Kentucky
  • Idaho

“We’re over the largest cave formation in the world, so there’s not a lot of resistance,” explained Hoylman. “Radon and other soil gases can move through the caves freely. Here in Jefferson County, about 60 percent of all outbuildings have a radon problem.”

He said a vent system and fan can be installed into your home to pull radon from beneath the house and vent it to the outside, a process known as mitigation. The cost of a mitigation system may vary according to the home's design, size, foundation, construction materials and the local climate.

“It's the most significant carcinogen we deal with in our buildings and we need to be doing more to address the problems,” Hoylman declared.

He said every home should be tested for radon especially in WAVE Country, but it can build up in any home. The highest radon levels are generally found in your home during the winter months when our homes are sealed more tightly than during the summer.

“The testing was very easy,” Howard shared.

The Gittlis resolved their home’s radon problem by mitigating their home. They also have a plan in place to monitor the system from now on.

“Get it done,” Lisa stressed.

People exposed to both radon and tobacco smoke are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer, according to the EPA.

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