Radon: What you don't know can hurt you

When it comes to radon, what you don't know can hurt you. Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that is created when uranium decays. However, you don't need to live near a uranium mine to have radon in your home.

The Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency (ARRA) reports that about one of every 15 Arizona homes may contain radon concentrations in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended action level. Radon levels can even vary within neighborhoods.

What health hazards are linked to radon exposure? According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Radon represents a far smaller risk for this disease, but it still ranks as the second leading cause of lung cancer. The NCI reports that 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths a year in the U.S. are radon-related. The majority of these deaths occur among smokers. Ten percent of radon-related cancer deaths occur among non-smokers.

Radon is in the air we breathe, so it's impossible to avoid it completely. However, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure to radon. Begin by learning the levels of radon in your home, as this will be the most significant source of radon exposure for most people. A short-term or long-term radon detector will measure radon levels over as few as two days to as long as 90 days. Because radon levels can vary from day to day and month to month, the EPA notes the long-term test is a better indicator of the average radon level. Do-it-yourself radon detection kits are available online at www.sosradon.org and may be purchased at home repair and hardware stores.

The EPA recommends that homeowners consider repairing their homes when the radon level is between 2 and 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air) as there is no known "safe" level of radon exposure.

Those repairs include sealing cracks in floors and walls and/or increasing ventilation by using pipes and fans. Evaporative coolers, also called "swamp coolers," can also help dilute radon levels by pushing cooled outdoor air into the home.

To learn more about protecting your home and your health from radon exposure, contact the ARRA at 602-255-4845 ext. 244, or www.azrra.gov. If you have questions about radon, contact the National Radon Hotline at 1-800-55RADON (1-800-557-2366), which is operated by Kansas State University in partnership with the EPA.