Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally, seeping in minute quantities from certain rocks and geologic formations. It can slightly increase the risk of lung cancer if it accumulates within a residence or other building. And it is clear and odorless, so radon is one of those unseen menaces that people fear but typically never find.
Testing a home for radon is simple and inexpensive. Test kits for less than $15 have material that reacts to radon’s radioactive particles.
To get people to test their homes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has chosen an inflammatory marketing effort.
Annual radon-awareness campaigns are based on the false premise that radon is a leading cause of lung cancer and the probably true assertion that it is the No. 2 cause behind smoking.
Actually, there is only one leading cause of lung cancer — smoking. It accounts for 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths.
The National Cancer Institute says the data from all U.S. and Canada radon studies demonstrate “a slightly increased risk of lung cancer for individuals with elevated exposure to household radon.”
The correlation between homes with elevated radon and lung cancer suggests that the gas might cause 3 percent of lung cancer deaths. And even among these, 9 out of 10 would be also be smokers.
Those who prefer to think of science as settled and certain will have to look elsewhere. For example, a peer-reviewed 2011 article, posted in the National Library of Medicine, is titled “Residential Radon Appears to Prevent Lung Cancer.” It says the radon cancer estimate is based on the invalidated presumption that there is no amount of radiation without risk, and that the small number of radioactive particles from radon also activate a natural response that can protect against smoking-related lung cancer.
People are indeed routinely exposed to natural radiation — for example, from elements in the earth, from plants such as bananas and lima beans that take up those elements, and from the sun — so a beneficial reaction to radon is at least plausible.
Federal and state environmental agencies muddy the waters further by issuing maps showing where the potential for residential radon is high, moderate and low. Much of this region is in the low category, with parts of Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean at moderate risk.
But the agencies label the maps as not to be used to determine whether residents might want to test their homes for radon. Honestly, what other use could there be?
The agencies should clean up this mess by backing off the scare tactics and promulgating a simple rule: If radon above recommended limits is found in a home, all nearby owners and renters must be notified that an unspecified home in the area has excess radon. This should result in radon testing where it’s needed most.