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Radon and Lung Cancer--Confident in My Ignorance

Posted Nov 09 2009 10:02pm

The following guest post is from Gloria Linnertz, an advocate in the lung cancer community who hails from Waterloo, Ill.:

We think we know about radon and lung cancer, but do we?

"Why was I so confident in my ignorance?" is the question I ask myself very often. In the months prior to my husband’s diagnosis of lung cancer, he mentioned to me that perhaps we should check our home for radon gas. Of course, I didn’t know anything about radon gas, but thought I did. I said that our home was relatively new—only twenty years old—and we had a tight basement. I was confident in my ignorance! Because radon cannot be detected through our senses, the only way to know if this silent killer is intruding into your home is to test. Recognizing what we can’t see, taste or smell is the problem.

In the year before his diagnosis, my husband Joe also said to me that he might have cancer. My husband had previously had two triple artery bypasses twenty years apart. Again, I said: "You don’t have cancer; you have heart disease." I thought he was just worrying too much. I thought I knew, but I didn’t. My husband Joe was a person to take preventive and safe measures. For 27 years he worked and exercised every day, kept a low fat, low cholesterol diet, and didn’t smoke. We had smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers in our home; and we didn’t burn candles. Joe only lived six weeks after his diagnosis of lung cancer that had spread to his liver and bones. We had been living with a radon level of 17.6 picocuries per liter of air in our home for 18 years.

Knowing the word radon and that it is a gas does not constitute knowledge of the element and its danger. You’ve heard the saying “A little knowledge can be dangerous.” I would change that to “A little knowledge can be deadly.” We, the general public, don’t know the facts. We must replace our limited knowledge with a full base of all the facts on radon.

Dr. Bill Field, an American Academic Scholar and Professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology within the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, who has recently been appointed to the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health by President Obama, stated that protracted radon progeny exposure is the seventh leading cause of cancer mortality in the United States and the leading environmental cause of cancer mortality. It is the leading cause of lung cancer deaths among non-smokers.

Large and recent studies confirm that radon in homes increases lung cancer risks. Throughout our world up to 18% of the lung cancers can be attributed to indoor radon according to Professor Bill Angell, Chair of the Prevention and Mitigation Working Group of the World Health Organization’s International Radon Project. . Radioactive particles from radon gas are inhaled and attach to the air sacs in the lungs. These particles change the characteristic of the cells to cancer, and those mutated cells divide and multiply.

Radon is a radioactive gas that emanates from rocks and soils and tends to concentrate in enclosed spaces like houses. Soil gas infiltration is the most important source of residential radon and is present in every home (except ones on stilts) because of the way our homes are built and designed.

The analysis from recent studies in Europe, North America, and Asia indicates that lung cancer risk increases proportionally with increasing radon exposure according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There is no known threshold concentration below which radon is safe. On September 21, 2009 WHO, in view of the latest scientific data, released a reference level of 2.7 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) as a minimum level to minimize health hazards due to indoor radon exposure.

Radon is easy to measure. Every home needs to be tested for radon because each home has its own individual footprint on the earth. The homeowner cannot rely on the results of surrounding houses in the neighborhood. A short term (3-7 days) and/or long term (3-12 months) test kit can be used. Radon professionals can also perform the test with electronic devices. Test kits can be obtained from the radon hotline at (785) 532-6026 or email at Radon@ksu.edu or Web site: www.sosradon.org. Radon test kits can also be purchased at the local hardware stores.

It is easy to protect from radon gas. Addressing radon is important in new construction as well as existing buildings. Radon prevention strategies focus on sealing radon entry routes and using soil depressurization techniques to prevent the gas from entering the home. The cost is very reasonable. “How little it can cost to save a life!” is what I would say to someone who complained about the expense of a radon mitigation system installed by a licensed radon professional.

I write this in memory of my husband Joe --who was so very dear to me—my friend, my partner, my companion, my love. I ask you to test your home for radon during this month of November—National Lung Cancer Awareness Month. If your level is above 2.7, spend that little extra money to help save a life. That life may be someone you love.

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