WHO Urges Lower Threshold for Acting on Radon
Many of us shake our heads when we hear of non-smokers who develop lung cancer and wonder how they could have come down with such a brutal disease. But in many cases, scientists tell us, exposure to radon gas in their homes could have been the cause. According to the World Health Organization, between 3 and 14 percent of lung cancer cases can be blamed on exposure low- to medium-level levels of radon in homes.
WHO just recommended that countries set an action level for getting rid of radon that's lower than the one established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly two decades ago. According to the EPA, if a radon test shows the level in your home to be 4 picocuries per liter or higher, you should re-test and then take action to reduce the level. But, even if a test shows a level of 2 picocuries per liter, the agency suggests people consider taking action.
WHO's new recommendation (which they stated in the European metric method, at 100 Becquerel per cubic metre) is equivalent to 2.7 picocuries per liter using the American measure, according to Tom Kelly, acting director of radiation and indoor air for the EPA. But he said the agency is not considering changing its recommended action level of 4, partly because the round number is easy for the public to remember.
In a phone interview, Kelly said, "There is no threshold level in which radon is safe. ... There's a lot of risk below 2.7; there's a lot of risk below four." The most important thing, he said, was just to get people to take the risk seriously, test their homes and then to perform the relatively simple and inexpensive fixes needed to reduce their exposure.
"Radon is a terrible thing," Kelly said. "More than
2,000 20,000 Americans every year are found to have lung cancer. Much of that is avoidable."
He estimated about 15 percent of homes in America would show high levels if they were tested.
Radon gas is produced by the decay of uranium in the soil. It has no color or odor and can enter homes through cracks in the the floor or foundation walls, or through slab openings for sump pumps and plumbing.
You can buy a do-it-yourself radon test kit at hardware stores for about $10. "These rugged little test kits still give you a very useful estimate," Kelly said. If it shows radon, you can follow up with more precise tests from professionals. "Remember, 4 is not safe," Kelly said. He also said it's best to do the test in the cooler months, when the house is closed up and humidity levels are low. Heat and humidity can affect readings, he said.
If you do find radon, often it can be lowered dramatically by sealing building openings and adding ventilation, especially in the basement.
September 24, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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