Radon is a radioactive gas created by the normal breakdown of uranium in the soil and rocks. It is an odorless, tasteless gas that travels to the earth’ s surface and into buildings through cracks in the foundation.
The American Cancer Society estimates radon exposure causes an average of 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, and 10 to 25 percent of them are non-smokers. Typically, cancer tends to develop anywhere from 5 to 25 years after exposure.
The combination of smoking and radon exposure can significantly increase your risk of lung cancer. According to the EPA, if 1,000 smokers were exposed to the “action” radon level of 4 pCi/L over a lifetime, about 62 of them would get lung cancer from the radiation, compared to about 7 out of 1,000 non-smokers.
While the evidence is limited, radon may be linked to other cancers besides lung cancer. One study conducted in Denmark from 1968 to 1994 suggests a statistically significant link between radon exposure and acute childhood lymphoblastic leukemia.
Another study by the University of Texas Medical Branch concluded radon exposure may be a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer in African-Americans, American-Indians, and Asian-Americans.
As for radon in your home, it can originate from a number of sources, including:
- Building materials, including silicone-rich magmatic rocks (particularly granite, and especially the more exotic granites like the red, pink and purple varieties), gypsum waste products, cement, concrete, pumice, and basaltic rock.
- Contaminated air seeping into your home through cracks in the foundation, walls and floors. Radon levels are highest in rooms closest to the ground, so if you spend a lot of time in basement rooms at home, work or school, your risk for exposure could be greater.
- Well water. While the risk of exposure from water is generally minimal, deep wells sunk into rock with a high radium concentration may contain high levels of radon. I would encourage you to test for this poison if you get your water from an underground well.
- Smoke detectors. Residential smoke detectors fall into three different categories: the ionization type, the photoelectric type, and detectors that contain both types of sensing devices. Ionization smoke detectors are less expensive and more commonly used, but they emit small amounts of radon.
- Clocks and watches. Certain clocks and watches can also add to the overall radon levels of your surroundings. If you own one with a luminous dial, it probably contains either Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, or Promethium, a man-made radioactive element.