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Deadly Radon Gas Poses Health Threat in Many Homes

Aug 23, 2005 | According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Americans should be aware and concerned about the level of radon gas in there homes.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, and radioactive gas that seeps into buildings from the underlying soil. Experts claim that long-term exposure to the gas can cause lung cancer.

While radon is present in low amounts in the air (about 0.4 picoCuries per liter), the problem occurs when it seeps into buildings from the soil and levels build up inside. Radon comes from the radioactive decay of uranium in the soil.
The gas itself does not pose an immediate health threat, but over time produces two radioactive isotopes of polonium that can lodge in the lungs and cause cancer.

Phil Jalbert, acting director of the EPA's center for radon and air toxics, said that although radon does not pose as much of a health threat as smoking, which kills some 150,000 people annually, it is the second leading cause of lung cancer deaths in the country.  It may cause as many as 21,000 deaths each year, more than drunken driving, accidents in the home, or fires.

The EPA suggests homeowners have their houses tested for radon. If the average concentration is greater than their designation "action level" of 4 picoCuries per liter of air, the agency encourages measures to reduce the levels.

The connection between lung cancer and radon was first apparent in uranium miners surrounded by high levels of the gas as they worked underground according to Bill Field, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa's College of Public Health been supported by recent research.

These studies include a summary of recent of a number of radon studies in the journal Epidemiology in January, which showed an 11% to 21% increase in lung cancer risk corresponding with gas exposure.

Other research in the January 2005 British Medical Journal and by the World Health Organization (WHO) attributed between 6% and 15% percent of lung cancer deaths to radon. The WHO and the U.S. Surgeon General have both issued warnings against radon.

According to the EPA and many researchers radon is dangerous at all levels. Thus the lower levels found in buildings is claimed to be just as dangerous as the higher levels experienced by miners.

Some scientists, such as Bernard Cohen, Ph.D., a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, take issue with this conclusion, however. In his study, Cohen considered average radon levels in 1,600 counties in the U.S., containing more than 90% of the nation's population, and plotted them against lung cancer deaths.

He hypothesizes that if even small amounts of radon can cause harms, counties with the highest average radon levels should have the highest rates of lung cancer. However, "It's just the other way around," he said. Cohen concludes "to worry about 4 picoCuries is really not justified."

Jalbert admits that the EPA cut off level is not really based on what levels of the gas pose a health concern, but was selected because at that number the problem is easier to treat.

If homeowners are concerned, the exposure to radon can usually be remedied by sub-slab depressurization, which requires drilling a hole through the basement floor and the insertion of a plastic pipe with a fan that will vent the gas into the outdoors through a wall in the side of the house.

The procedure can cost anywhere from $700 upward. Testing radon levels costs between $5 and $15 and should be done every few years.

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