Radon detection helps prevent lung cancer

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and is thought to be the second leading cause of all lung cancer deaths.

Between 7,000 and 30,000 Americans die each year from exposure to the odorless, colorless radioactive gas, including nearly 700 Virginians, the Virginia Department of Health reports on its website http://www.vdh.virginia.gov.

The risk of radioactivity is worst in mountainous regions, said Mike Welling, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Radioactive Materials Program.

Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, Rockingham and Warren are among Virginia’s Zone 1 counties — those at highest risk for radon. All 50 states include a risk of radon poisoning.

“Radon is naturally occurring,” Welling said. “It’s from the Earth itself.”

But it forms from the Earth in pockets of gas, so not all homes in high-risk zones will be greatly affected, and most newer homes are constructed to better protect against radon, said Charles Devine III, health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District.

National Radon Action Month takes place during the winter because that’s when residents are most in danger of radon levels. Windows and doors are shut against the cold, and those who haven’t tested their homes might unknowingly inhale high levels of the dense gas or dust particles from solids that form when uranium breaks down.

The risk of lung cancer is increased when the dust particles stick to airways in the lungs, the Environmental Protection Agency reports on its website http://www.epa.gov. Humans can ingest trace amounts of radon with food and water or inhale it through smoke in indoor environments, particularly tobacco smoke, the site states.

At a lower risk of radon poisoning are the Virginia counties directly east of the Blue Ridge, with Chesapeake Bay-area counties listed as having the lowest risk.

Residents can obtain a radon test kit for about $15 at commercial vendors like Lowe’s and Home Depot, and they can print half-off coupons through this website: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov.

The website also includes information on how to test for radon and mitigate radon levels if tests detect high levels in the home.

Residents who detect high levels of radon using a short 48-hour test can request a longer test for confirmation before seeking help in alleviating the threat, Welling said. Solutions include sealing cracks in floors and walls, improving a home’s circulation or removing radon from below the concrete floor and foundation before it enters the home.

Test kits should be analyzed by a laboratory through either the National Radon Proficiency Program or the National Radon Safety Board, as listed on kit instructions.

Some radon levels are OK, Devine said. But in spite of increased education in recent years, many residents don’t realize the risk radon has on long-term health.

The goal each January is to increase education, he said — “To let them know that the problems are potentially quite real.”

Contact the National Institute of Health’s Office of Radiological Health at http://preview.tinyurl.com/pzak6ad or at 804-864-8150.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com