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Lung Cancer Problems After Radon Exposure?

02/08/2010

Question:

We just had a radon test at our house, and it revealed a level of 5 pCi/L. The EPA suggests a follow-up test and then action to reduce radon levels between 4-8 pCi/L.

My wife and I have lived in our house for 10 years. Neither one of us smoke, but I did smoke for several years before we moved here, in my early Twenties (I`m now 38). My wife has mild asthma. She had this long before we moved here.

What can we do now, and in the future, to monitor any damage and potential lung cancer risk this exposure caused? Are there any tests we should get now or in future? Thanks!

Answer:

There is a slight problem with the wording of your question, "...it revealed a level of 5 pCi/L. The EPA suggests a follow-up test and then action to reduce radon levels between 4-8 pCi/L." If your test shows 5 pCi/L then you're already at 4-8 pCi/L. If the recommendation is to reduce your levels by 4-8 pCi/L, then that range is excessive, given their starting point (they would have to reduce levels by 80 to 100%). I think EPA has <4 pCi/L as its standard. So there are some inconsistencies here that I'm can't address without clarification.

However, I think if you hire a company to do an abatement (sealing all foundational and floor cracks, including sump pump openings, crawl spaces, etc., followed by placement of a negative pressure air pump to continually vent air from under the basement floor) you will almost certainly get the levels down to acceptable levels.

As for the health risks, they depend on how much time residents spent on the floor with the levels around 5 pCi/L, other environmental factors (like smoking, which doesn't seem to be at play here), inherent susceptibility (there's a reason why some people can smoke for 70 years without getting lung cancer while others never smoked and get it), and other occupational exposures (for example, secondhand smoke, roofing, asphalt work).

If you have a basement where the testing was done and you spend, let's say 5% of your time there, then your exposure is pretty low. If your house is on a slab and you spent 100% of your time at 5 pCi/L then your exposure has been greater, but still not extreme in the big picture. My guess is that the risk of lung cancer from this level of exposure is fairly low. Some houses in central Ohio, for example, are built on ravines carved out of shale (the rock most associated with radon) and have levels over 100 pCi/L.

The question about monitoring for health effects is trickier, but, with some cost, you could have sputum samples tested for abnormal cells. This would not be diagnostic, but could give you a screening for early changes in DNA. See the paragraph below:

"As previously mentioned, the primary organ identified in both human and animal studies following exposure to radon and progeny is the lung. Alterations in sputum cytology have been evaluated as an early indicator of radiation damage to lung tissue. The frequency of abnormalities in sputum cytology, which may indicate potential lung cancer development, increased with increasing cumulative exposures to radon and radon daughters. Although abnormal sputum cytology may be observed following radon exposure, this effect is also seen following exposure to other xenobiotics, including cigarette smoke. In addition, even though increases in the frequency of abnormal sputum cytology can be measured, they may not provide a reliable correlation between levels in human tissues or fluids with health effects in exposed individuals." University of Minnesota, Division of Environmental Health Sciences, Radon Biomarkers, 2010. Hope this helps!

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Response by:

J Mac Crawford, PhD, RN J Mac Crawford, PhD, RN
Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences
College of Public Health
The Ohio State University