All about radon, the invisible lung cancer threat

Could a hidden danger be lurking in your home? You wouldn’t see or smell it, but radon gas can hurt you in the long run.

Here are five things to know about radon, including how to protect your family against it, with information from the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society:

Radon is everywhere. It forms naturally when uranium in soil and rock decays. The resulting gas can seep into homes or other buildings through foundation cracks, in gaps around pipes or through other openings. It’s found everywhere—even outdoors in low levels. If too much radon builds up inside a home, breathing it can be dangerous over time.

It’s the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. When radon decays, it releases cancer-causing radioactive particles small enough to make it into the lungs. Radon causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year, which includes 2,900 deaths among nonsmokers. Radon exposure by itself can cause lung cancer. But if you smoke and are exposed to high levels of radon, your lung cancer risk rises much higher.

Elevated radon levels have been found in every state. Some areas have higher radon levels than others. This is due to the varying nature of rocks and soils within the U.S. Radon levels can even vary from one house to the next.

Testing is the only way to know. Since you can’t smell or see radon, the only way to know if it’s a problem in your home is to test for it. You can do this yourself—inexpensive radon test kits are available at hardware and other stores. After testing, you mail the kit to a lab, which analyzes it and sends you the results. Short-term tests often take up to a week to complete. Long-term tests, which may be more accurate, take about three months. Or you can hire a certified radon professional to test your home. Check with your state radon program for contractors in your area. Radon is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking steps to lower radon levels of 4.0 (pCi/L) or higher.

A radon problem can be fixed. If your home does have a radon issue, you can hire a contractor to fix the problem. For instance, a contractor may install a special ventilation system (pipes and fans) under the house to collect radon and send it outdoors or seal any cracks where radon might get in.

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