The federal EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) announced in
midSeptember that 1/3 of all U.S. homes may contain dangerous levels of
radon, a colorless, odorless, tasteless cancer-causing gas created by
nature. The agency said as many as 20,000 Americans may be dying each
year from lung cancer caused by radon in homes. They said all homes
should be tested for the presence of radon.
Coming 60 days before the election, the announcement looked political.
But we believe our readers should take this threat seriously. Here's
There can be absolutely no doubt that radon causes lung cancer in
humans. An epidemic of lung cancer is now sweeping through the men who
worked the uranium mines in our Western states from 1940 to today.
European miners show similar cancers from similar exposures. Radon gas
is not something you want to breathe and it is not something you want
your children to breathe.
Radon is a natural hazard, but this does not make it safe by any means.
Radon is formed by the naturally-occurring radioactive decay of
uranium, an element that occurs in all soil (more in some soils, less
in others). Radon is heavier than air, so it tends to collect in low
places that are poorly-ventilated, such as basements. Newer homes may
be especially prone to a buildup of radon because they are often
designed with poor ventilation as an energy-conservation measure.
The EPA has probably not overestimated the danger from exposure to
particular levels of radon. What the agency may have overestimated is
the amount of radon in peoples' homes. The agency's tests generally
occur during the winter, when people keep their houses zipped up
against the cold. Therefore the agency's tests may have overestimated
the average exposures that people endure because the average must take
into account both winter and summer conditions.
Nevertheless, the radon problem is something we should each evaluate in
our own homes, including apartments below the 3rd floor. You can get a
quick (one-day to one-week) sample of the air in your home tested for
radon for about $10.00, but a sample of the air taken over a longer
period (90 days to a year) is much more reliable for showing you the
average amount of radon in your home, which is what you care about. One
high reading for a day or a week is cause for concern (it should prompt
you to do a longer test) but it is not cause for panic. On the other
hand, a low reading for one day or one week does not prove there's no
danger. It is the long-term average that will create the cancer risk,
so that is what you want to know about.
The Reagan Administration (and certain state governments, such as New
Jersey's) would have you believe that the radon problem is so serious
that you should forget about the toxic chemicals in your air and water.
This is dangerously false. At a minimum, the hazard from radon in your
home will be added to the danger you face from chemicals. Worse yet,
there is abundant evidence from cigarette-smoking uranium miners that
the effects of radon and some chemicals may be multiplied, creating a
combined hazard much worse than the two hazards added together. This is
called synergism and there is a definite synergistic effect between the
chemicals in tobacco smoke and radon gas. Therefore, the radon danger
should make us redouble our efforts to rid the environment of toxic
chemicals; nature provided the earth with a background level of hazards
[radon, cosmic rays, black widow spiders, to name a few], so we should
work hard to prevent greedy humans from adding industrial hazards and
making the situation worse.
Therefore, though we believe Mr. Reagan hoped the radon announcement
would take your mind off the toxic chemicals that his EPA has failed to
control over the last eight years, we believe radon should be taken
very seriously by people who care about their health. The radon threat
should be evaluated house by house. This problem has been known in New
Jersey and Pennsylvania since 1984 and we have studied it closely. We
firmly believe the danger is real.
We think the New York Times gave good advice when they suggested that
their readers contact a company called Air-Chek, Box 2000, Arden, NC
28704; phone (704) 684-0893. Air-Check will sell you one short term
[charcoal canister] test for $9.95, or 3 short tests for $24.95. [Check
the basement and typical living areas, such as living room and a
bedroom.] They sell 3 of the longerterm, more reliable [called alpha
track] tests for $49.95 and this is the test we recommend. These tests
are simple. They mail you a canister about the size of a can of shoe
polish. You set it in your home for the recommended time period, then
mail it back. They analyze it and send you the results along with an
The EPA says 4 picoCuries of radon per liter of air is "safe," but they
also admit that this is four times the natural background level, and
that 4 picoCuries is the equivalent of getting 200 to 300 chest x-rays
per year or smoking 1/2 a pack of cigarettes per day. They say 1% to 5%
of the people exposed to such a level 75% of the time for 70 years will
develop lung cancer. We believe the federal standard should be cut in
half; in truth, we favor reducing the level inside homes to background
(one picoCurie per liter). And of course no one should use tobacco at
all. We favor a law requiring alpha track testing for any house that's
Ventilating a home with fresh air is the right antidote to the radon
hazard. If you find excessive radon in your home, it can be fixed
easily for an average cost of $500 to $1000. Don't panic, don't move
out, and don't be afraid to buy a house. But above all, don't ignore
the problem just because it was Mr. Reagan's EPA who brought it to
To learn more about the problem in your area and to find reliable
people who can advise you on testing and mitigation, contact the
American Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians, a trade
group: P.O. Box 70, Park Ridge, NJ 07656; phone (201) 391-6445.
Recently, Bernard Cohen, a pro-nuke scientist at University of
Pittsburgh, has been saying he has evidence that a little radon
(between 1 and 4 picoCuries per liter) may actually be good for you.
[For example, see SCIENCE NEWS Vol. 134 (Oct. 15, 1988), pg. 254.] This
is an interesting theory, but it's definitely not something you want to
bet your health or your children's health on. Be safe; test for radon,
A CALL TO ACTION: THE GREAT LOUISIANA TOXICS MARCH
Some people are talking about it and some people are DOING it. There's
a huge group in Louisiana that's DOING it. Five organizations are
sponsoring a 9-day, 70-mile march from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Nov.
11 to 20 through Louisiana's "cancer alley." Along the way they've
planned actions that will highlight the problems and will bring folks
together. Try to be there! More on this next week.
For information, contact Darryl Malke-Wiley, The Sierra Club, 3227
Canal St., New Orleans, LA 70119; phone (504) 822-8760.
Descriptor terms: indoor air pollution; radiation; radioactivity;
radon; epa; remedial action; la;