Radon is a by-product of uranium breaking down in the earth. It is a radioactive gas found in soil, water and rocks. Radon poisoning is second only to smoking in causing lung cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Vigilance is important in recognising radon's impact on health.
The Nature of the Problem
Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas that seeps up from the earth to become trapped in homes and other buildings and structures. When inhabitants breathe the gas, radon damages cells in the lungs. Unfortunately, lung cancer can be the result of serious radon exposure. Prevention is the most effective means of controlling the health risks of radon exposure.
Unfortunately, there are very few symptoms of radon poisoning until one begins to exhibit symptoms of lung cancer. Vigilance for symptoms of lung cancer is also important, as treatment for lung cancer should begin as early as possible. Such symptoms include a cough that gets worse or does not go away, coughing up blood (hemoptysis), chest pains (dull and persistent), chronic shortness of breath and repeated respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis.
Lowering Your Risk
Prevention is not only important in decreasing your risk for radon poisoning, it's really the only defence against health effects that have few symptoms. Most prevention revolves entirely around safeguarding your home against radon build-up.
Have your home tested. Your local health department or state radon office (see the Resources section) can help you find a test kit and/or professional to help you. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking radon-reduction action if your home tests at 4 picocuries (PCI) per litre or higher. Lung cancer risk is higher than average even between 1 and 4 PCI/L, so the EPA suggests that you consider action even at those levels.
If you are building a new home, consider asking your builder to include radon-reducing features such as gravel beneath the foundation, vent pipes and vapour retarders.
Seal all cracks and openings in the foundation. Be sure to have your home tested if you are converting a basement to living space--the risk of radon exposure increases the closer you are to the ground.