Is Radon Exposure Harmful?
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Radon Toxicity - A Leading Cause of Lung Cancer

Published on Feb 07, 2023   -  4 min read


Radon toxicity is one of the leading causes of lung cancers in non-smokers. It is a radioactive gas that is naturally present in the environment.


English physicist Ernest Rutherford first identified the highly radioactive element radon in 1899. It is typically found in rock and soil and is not a chemically manufactured gas. It is an inert gas, nine times denser than air and the heaviest known gas. Due to its atomic composition, it may easily pass through various materials, including paper, leather, plastic, concrete, wood paneling, and insulation. Various isotope types of radon exist naturally, but only two of them, radon-220 and radon-222, are present in substantial amounts in the environment. Radon is a radioactive gas that is tasteless, odorless, and colorless. One of the key factors contributing to lung cancer in non-smokers is radon. It is estimated to result in about 21,000 deaths a year. It emits alpha particles, which can harm the respiratory epithelium because it is a highly dense and radioactive gas. All across the world, it can be found in the ground, rocks, and soil. It can be present in water supplies and can be found in buildings too.

In places with poor ventilation, it often accumulates in large amounts, and high concentrations can eventually harm human health. Recently, a statistically significant linear association between rising radon levels and a higher risk of developing lung cancer has been discovered. The only way to determine if there is a significant degree of exposure is to measure the radon levels because it cannot be detected by color, taste, or smell and does not cause any visible indications of irritation or exposure.

How Are Humans Exposed to Radon?

The main ways that people are exposed to radon are through inhalation and ingestion. Humans are vulnerable to exposure from various sources, including the ground, gas appliances, water supply, or pressure-driven flow in the home, given that radon resides in groundwater, soil, rock, and confined spaces like buildings and basements. Radon can therefore be released into the air when it is burned in furnaces, fireplaces, heaters, and stoves because it is also found in natural gas. Inhalation of radon is ultimately the most significant health risk.

What Is the Extent of Radon Exposure Globally?

Radon exposure is a global environmental and health issue. Armenia has the highest radon levels, which are thought to have caused 29 percent to 30 percent of lung cancer cases, according to recent studies from 2012. The lowest levels were found in Japan, where it is estimated that radon causes 4 percent of lung cancer cases. According to estimates, radon exposure accounts for 9 percent to 13 percent of lung cancer incidences in the U.S.

Those who operate in restricted air spaces, such as those in the mining and construction industries, are at much greater risk of radon exposure. Recent research has revealed that uranium miners were particularly at risk for exposure. For miners, appropriate ventilation can lower this risk. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in men and women in the U.S. Lung cancer continues to be mainly caused by smoking. The number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second-leading cause overall is radon exposure. Smokers exposed to radon have a significantly higher chance of developing lung cancer. It is thought to be 10 to 20 times higher. Children are more in danger from higher radon intake since they have smaller lungs and fast breathing rates.

Why Is Radon Exposure History Important?

A good history is the first essential step in assessing radon risk and exposure. Important exposure history involves:

  • A person's employment history, mainly if they have ever worked in confined spaces or environments directly or indirectly exposed to radon (miners, builders, excavators, etc.).

  • Exposure to smoke (at home or work).

  • Types of gas appliances used.

  • Radon levels in the house.

  • Time spent in small areas (such as basements).

  • Residence ventilation systems.

The past medical history must be known to determine the diagnosis. Given that radon targets the lungs, a history of prior lung disease is particularly crucial. Evaluation is made more difficult due to the lack of distinct indications and symptoms associated with higher levels of radon exposure. Physical examination should focus on the respiratory system and symptoms of lung cancer because increased radon exposure may cause lung cancer. The physical checkup might not specifically test for radon exposure. However, it can aid in making the diagnosis. Some of these symptoms include:

How Can It Be Treated or Managed?

The most effective way to decrease the adverse effects of radon is to prevent exposure. The amount of radon in the air is commonly measured in pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air). The average amount of radon in outdoor air is 0.4 pCi/L, and the U.S Congress wants indoor radon levels to be at least those found outside. Because radon toxicity has no warning signs or symptoms, monitoring and maintaining low indoor radon levels is critical.

Some methods can lower the amount of radon entering the house, while others can lower its levels once it has entered. Soil suction is one of the most popular techniques; it extracts radon from the building and vents it through a pipe to the air above the building, where it is diluted. By using this technique, radon entry into the house is reduced. The four types of soil suctioning are as follows. The kind of housing determines which approach is most efficient. One of several methods of soil suction, such as sub-slab suction, drain tile suction, sump hole suction, or block wall suction, can lower radon levels in basement and slab-on-grade homes.

The following are other radon reduction techniques that can be applied to all types of homes:

  • Sealing: Reduce the passage of radon inside a property by caulking crevices. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) does not advise using this technique alone, as it has not been shown to reduce radon levels significantly.

  • Pressurizing a Home or Room: This procedure utilizes a fan to push air into a living space or basement to boost pressure, stopping radon from getting into the home. Usually, this approach is taken when all other methods have failed.


Radon is a colorless gas and causes no apparent symptoms of exposure. It is essential to measure radon levels as it is the only way to know if a high level of exposure exists to establish a proper diagnosis and adopt treatment methods. It can help in preventing increased exposure.

Last reviewed at:
07 Feb 2023  -  4 min read




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