Myth-Busting: Radon

House hunting has all kinds of stresses inherent in it. For one thing, even once you’ve found that perfect place, you still have to get over several hurdles. One of those is the inspection, and as someone asked me, what about radon?

What about radon? I had no intention of paying for a ‘radon inspection’ much less a ‘radon detector’ or any sort of remediation for it. Why? What about lung cancer? See, here’s the thing: despite the media hype and near-hysteria about radon, there’s no link between the radon you’ll find in a domicile, and lung cancer. Study after study has been done, and still… no real link. “The magnitude of the lung cancer risk from radon levels commonly found in US dwellings appears low” (Journal of National Cancer Inst. 86:1829-1837, 1994)

Even the EPA site doesn’t make it clear that there’s not a link between radon and lung cancer. Don’t get me wrong: we know radon causes cancer. However, the link is one found in miners, who spend their working lives deep in the earth with high levels of exposure to the radioactive gas. But the American public has been primed to panic over anything labeled ‘radioactive’ so if you google radon, you get page after page of companies offering expensive and largely unnecessary radon remediation.

“From 1990 to 1996, a case-control study on lung cancer and indoor radon comprising 1,449 cases and 2,297 controls was conducted in West Germany (Wichmann et al. 1998; Kreienbrock et al. 2001). There was no association between lung cancer and radon in the entire study area” Because the radon levels were so much lower than what is typically measured in a mine, where the direct causation has been shown, it’s highly unlikely that your home is going to give you cancer. But if it still worries you, it’s an easy solution: simply make sure that your home, especially the basement, is well-ventilated. Also, if you both smoke (even a small amount) and live in a house with higher levels of radon, you do increase your chance of developing lung cancer. Many of the studies done in the initial surge of concern about radon did not sufficiently factor in the effects of both smoking by residents, and cross-contamination in miners by not only smoking but exposure to other particulates that were inhaled and worsened their chances of developing a cancer.

Do I think I need a radon inspection? No. Do I think my house needs to be well-ventilated? Absolutely, and not just because of some concern over the possible presence of a low-risk factor. We are increasingly seeing that exposure to simple cleaning supplies can catastrophically affect the chances of lung damage. Hermetically sealed houses may also be heightening the allergy development in children. Adding in open windows and time spent without total climate control can have a lot of benefits.


7 responses to “Myth-Busting: Radon”

  1. Good — I always thought the radon scare was way over-hyped. Glad to see that one debunked.

    1. As with so many successful lies, there is a kernel of truth. Exposure to very high levels of radon (like in a mine, and a few rare isolated other areas) can increase the cancer risk. Houses, not so much and a house without a basement is basically no risk. But it made for great media circus and a lot of people have profited from it.

  2. I remember seeing a study from Before Internet that basically found yeah, there’s radon leaking out of the earth here and there, but your foundation suffices to prevent it from entering the house in any significant amount.

    1. They keep doing studies trying to find something, but most of them just show very little to no effect. It’s a very improbable cause to have a cell struck by a radon particle and then mutate – which is simplified, but it boils down to a very low threshold just doesn’t have the risk high exposure (ie mines) has.

  3. 1News Flash! Nobody gets out alive! Life is a terminal illness, the universally ends in death! News at eleven.

    1. Oh, I get the whole better living through modern science, reducing risk, and so on. I just think it gets taken too far.

  4. Heh. In Germany you can go to radon caves and former mines and breathe the air for an hour or two as part of a spa cure. It is supposed to be good for your lungs and to help purify the blood and de-stress you.