Radon & Lung Cancer: Keeping Your Kids Safe from the Ground Up

While we are trying to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals, we often overlook potentially one of the greatest risks in our home – radon, a radioactive gas. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among Safe from the Ground Upnon-smokers. Surprising, right? I would have guessed secondhand smoke. The EPA estimates that radon causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

Another cause for concern is that recent research suggests that children who live in homes with high radon levels may have an increased risk of developing childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The research found that children exposed to “intermediate” levels of radon had a 21% higher risk of developing ALL as compared to children exposed to the lowest levels. Children exposed to the highest levels of radon relative to those with the least exposure had a 63% greater risk of developing ALL.

Plus, January is National Radon Action Month, so this is the perfect time to talk about radon and what you can do to reduce your exposure.

But first, you are probably thinking what the heck is radon? Radon is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas produced by the decay of radium. Radium, in turn, is produced by the decay of naturally-occurring uranium present in soil, rock, and ground water. Certain areas in the United States have a higher potential to have elevated radon levels because rocks with higher uranium levels are located in those areas, but radon can be found all over the US. The EPA estimates that nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the US has elevated radon levels. The Office of the Surgeon General recommends that all homes be tested for radon.

As a gas, radon escapes rocks and soils by moving through what are known as soil pore spaces and rock fractures. Outside, radon gas isn’t a problem because it disperses. Typically, the concentration of radon in outdoor air is 0.4 picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L). But radon in homes and other buildings can be a problem. Your home’s air pressure is usually lower than air pressure in the soil around your home, so your house can suck in radon like a vacuum through cracks, utility entries, seams, and other openings in the foundation, as well as from uncovered soil in crawl spaces. Radon can be a problem indoors because it can build up to unhealthy levels. The EPA recommends that you take action to reduce radon levels if testing shows radon above 4 pCi/L.

Radon is a very heavy gas, so it tends to accumulate in basements or at the floor level. Thus, occupied basements, houses on slabs and houses with rooms cut into hillsides are the ones most likely to have high radon levels.

Because radon is odorless and colorless, it has been called the silent killer. Not only are there no signs that radon is present in your home, there are no signs that you are being exposed. It causes no symptoms that you might notice and the harmful effects are delayed many years. Once exposed, there is no treatment.

Radon can also enter your home through your water if the water supply contains dissolved radon. Radon enters water as bubbles from radium decaying next to the water. These bubbles easily escape when the water is agitated, so most surface water supplies have low radon concentrations. You also ingest some radon when you ingest water. However, the risk of lung cancer resulting from inhaling radon is far greater than the risk of stomach cancer from ingesting water with radon in it.

If your home’s water supply is from a municipal system, the mixing, treatment, and long residence time (the time it takes the water to make it from the treatment plant to your home) result in dilution and release of radon. By the time it reaches your tap, it is highly unlikely that you will have radon present, unless it is a very small public municipal system. However, a home that is supplied by a private groundwater well may have radon enter the home from the well water. But, radon in water can be readily treated.

If radon gas is present in your home, every time you inhale you get a dose of radioactivity in your lung. Radon gas decays. When radon decays, small radioactive particles are released. If you inhale radon (or the particles), once in the lungs, the tiny particles damage the cells that line the lung. These particles release small burst of energy as they decay. These small bursts of ionizing radiation can affect DNA, leading to mutations that may turn cancerous. The latency period for developing lung cancer from radon exposure is twenty to thirty years.

The increased risk of lung cancer from radon exposure is greater if you smoke. But even if you don’t smoke, elevated concentrations of radon in the home pose a fairly significant increased risk of cancer. For a home with 4 pCi/L, the lifetime risk of cancer is 7.3 out of 1,000 persons. That is really high, surprisingly high, especially when you compare it with the 1 in 1,000,000 risk factor generally used to regulate contaminants in our environment. And, “scientists are more certain about radon risks than from most other cancer-causing substances.”

Research has not yet determined whether children are at a higher risk from radon than adults. However, some children’s health advocates have suggested that children may be more sensitive because they have higher respiratory rates than adults. Also, the EPA has determined that exposure to carcinogens in the first two years of life is more significant, and a factor of 10 should be applied. Data generated from Japanese atomic bomb survivors suggests that exposure before the age of twenty years may have more significant health effects than exposure later in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that “until further data are available, it seems prudent to assume that the risks to children are at least as large as those determined in occupational studies.”

The EPA has developed a map that generally predicts radon levels in three general areas of the United States. But, you cannot use the geologic potential to determine the actual radon levels in your home. Some overlying soils with low uranium levels nonetheless have high radon levels, and vice versa. You must test your house to determine actual radon levels.

The good news? It is easy and relatively inexpensive to test for radon. You can purchase do-it-yourself kits from your local hardware store or online. The National Radon Program Services at Kansas State Univ. has test kits available for online purchase (you must create free account to access). Also, many state programs offer free or low cost test kits – just contact your state’s radon office.

Short term and long term test kits exist. A short term test is typically exposed to your home’s air two to seven days before being sent to a lab, and long term tests are usually exposed 90 days. If you buy a kit from a hardware store or online, make sure the test kit is state-certified. A study by Consumer Reports found long term tests more reliable than short term test kits. Radon levels can vary day to day, so a 90 day exposure period gives a more accurate reading of a home’s average radon level. Of the seven short term kits tested by Consumer Reports, only the RTCA charcoal canister was accurate enough for Consumer Reports to recommend. Two of the kits, Accustar’s Short Term LS Radon Test Kit CLS 100i and Kidde’s Radon Detection Kit 442020, under reported radon levels by almost 40%! Of long term test kits, Consumer Reports recommends, and found most accurate, Accustar’s Alpha Track Test Kit AT100. Of course, follow the instructions, including maintaining closed house conditions. You can also hire a trained contractor to test your home. Contact your state’s radon office for a list of qualified contractors.

If your child is in a daycare or school, ask if the building has been checked for radon. A lot of times daycares are in the basements of buildings, and bottom level rooms and basements are more likely to have high radon levels than other rooms. Of course, keep in mind that the lung cancer risk from radon exposure is related to both the radon level and the length of time one is exposed. Consequently, if the exposure time is short, even large radon concentrations may not contribute to a significant risk.

If the testing determines that radon levels are elevated in your home, then fix the problem. Radon reduction systems can reduce radon levels in your home by as much as 99%. EPA recommends fixing your home if one long term test, or two short term tests, show radon concentration levels above 4 pCi/L (or 0.016 working levels, also used in the industry). However, there is no safe level of radon established. EPA also recommends that you consider fixing your home if the radon level detected is above 2 pCi/L. If you have a radon problem and you decide to fix it, the EPA’s Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction has a good discussion of available technologies and how they work for different foundation types.

If you have determined that elevated levels of radon are present in your drinking water, then you can fix it before it enters your home with a point of entry system. A point of entry system will usually consist of granular activated carbon filters or aeration. Granular activated carbon may be less expensive to install, but the filters can collect radioactivity thereby necessitating special handling upon disposal. An aeration system may cost more to install. A point of use system is also an option and will remove radon at the tap, so from your drinking water. However, a point of use system will not eliminate exposure to radon escaping from other water uses in the home.

Finally, sealing cracks and other openings to prevent radon from entering the home is an easy approach to radon reduction. However, the EPA does not recommend the use of sealing alone as a method to reduce indoor radon concentrations. Sealing has not been shown to lower radon levels significantly or consistently. Identifying and permanently sealing all the places where radon is entering is difficult. A home’s normal settling will also open new ways for radon to enter.

Radon may sound scary, but it is easy to test for it and inexpensive, and the solutions are relatively easy. And it isn’t just about living green, but about keeping your kids and yourself safe. From the ground up.


Editor’s Note: all links in this post were updated effective 12/31/16. No other data in this report has been modified.

About the Author

Jennifer is a mom, consumer product attorney and author of Smart Mama's Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child's Toxic Chemical Exposure. She is passionate about keeping our kids safe, particularly from unnecessary exposures to toxic chemicals. Jennifer blogs at TheSmartMama.com TheSmartMama is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


14 Responses to “Radon & Lung Cancer: Keeping Your Kids Safe from the Ground Up”

  1. Josephine Fermanian says:

    Jennifer, I passed this on to my friends on Facebook.
    Keep up the great work!

  2. Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  3. cna training says:

    Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

  4. Singamajigs says:

    Wow that’s scary, I’ve never heard of radioactive gas or radon problems. Thanks for the post.
    .-= Singamajigs´s last blog ..Singamajigs =-.

  5. henry says:

    people should definitely test their homes for radon gas because it is not that hard to do and the gas is quite dangerous.

  6. Power ugg says:

    >…children exposed to “intermediate” levels of radon had a 21% higher risk…

    What is intermediate? Some homes have levels of 35 while others 5. Our radon was reduced to 1, is that still ok for a basement playroom? A bedroom?

    If possible please post a number instead of intermetiate- could really really help our decisions. Otherwise wellwritten, thanks!

    • Thank you for your very good question. We can’t exactly identify what “intermediate” means, but the EPA indicates that the average indoor radon level is 1.3 pCi/L – while outdoors it is 0.4 pCi/L. They also state that it is difficult to reduce radon levels below 2 pCi/L – so if you’ve gotten yours down to 1, that is a good accomplishment. It’s quite concerning if some homes have levels as high as 35, as that would represent a very significant cancer risk. I hope this answers your question. We appreciate you stopping by the site.

  7. It was interesting when you talked about how the damage from random comes from the radioactive particles that are released when it decays in our lungs. My husband and I were thinking about buying an old fixer-upper home near our current neighborhood that we can work on in our spare time. I didn’t realize why radon testing would be important before reading your article, so I’m glad you took the time to share this info!

  8. It’s great that you pointed out that it doesn’t cost too much money to test a building for radon. As far as I know, radon can travel through the ground and can get into your home by being absorbed through your foundation. I would imagine that this is something that can occur at any time so it would probably be a good idea to have your home tested for radon at least once a year.

  9. It stood out to me when you explained that sealing cracks and other openings can prevent radon from entering your home. As far as I know, radon generally comes from the ground and enters from the bottom of your home. It seems like it would be a good idea to make sure that your foundation doesn’t have any cracks in it.


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