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How to protect your family from cancer-causing radon gas

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Brick wall with home graphics and the word Radon

Smoking and second-hand smoke are easily identified as the leading cause of lung cancer. But the second-leading cause is not well-known: Radioactive radon gas is everywhere and seeps into homes. It’s so common that it’s found in one of every four residences in Palm Beach County.

The Florida Department of Health - Palm Beach County provides a free, quick and simple test for radon because it is a threat throughout Florida. Daniel Ukpong, an environmental specialist at the Health Department, and Environmental Administrator Laxmana Tallam, offer these explanations of the gas and how to test your home.

  • How do I test my home? The Florida Department of Health - Palm Beach County provides free vouchers for a test kit. Call (561) 837-5938 to receive a voucher, and click here for more information. The kit is a type of canister to be placed inside your home for about three days, then resealed and sent back to the company for analysis. Just follow the instructions, and the company will provide the results later.
  • What is radon? You can’t see or smell this radioactive gas. Radon comes out of the ground naturally, from the decay of uranium. It gets inside homes through cracks in the foundation, construction joints, and gas buildup below suspended floors and spaces behind walls, among other ways. While many new homes are built with radon-resistant features, the gas can still show up in both new and old homes, well-sealed or drafty homes, high-rise condominiums and homes without basements. Click here to view a video from the Department of Health on radon gas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers this guide for home buyers and sellers: Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon (Updated March 2018).
  • How dangerous is it? Radon gas is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year. That’s more than drunk driving, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and more than falls in the home, drownings and home fires combined. If you smoke, or if there are smokers in your home, along with a high level of radon gas, the risk of lung cancer is significantly greater.
  • How likely is it that radon gas is in my home? One of five homes tested in Florida shows a radon level above the EPA’s level of concern. Tests in Florida have ranged from one out of three homes in some areas with high levels, to just one out of 10 homes. Test results from homes in your neighborhood are not a good predictor for your own home, says Ukpong and Tallam. 
  • What gets measured? The measurement is based on picoCuries per liter of air, and that’s abbreviated as “pCi/L.” It’s a measurement of radioactivity in the air; remember that radon comes from decaying uranium, which is radioactive.
  • What’s the risk? The average level of radon outside your home, just in the open air, is about 0.4 pCi/L. If your home tests at 4 pCi/L or higher, the Health Department recommends actions to reduce the levels. The EPA provides some comparisons. If 1,000 people who never smoked were exposed to 4 pCi/L for a lifetime, seven of them could get lung cancer, and that’s the same risk as dying in a car crash. But remember that exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk. If 1,000 smokers were exposed to 4 pCi/L for a lifetime, about 62 of them could get lung cancer, and that is five times the risk of dying in a car crash.
  • Are children in danger too? Yes. Due to lung shape and size differences, children have higher estimated radiation doses than adults, says the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Children also have faster breathing rates than adults. The risk of lung cancer in children resulting from exposure to radon may be almost twice as high as the risk to adults exposed to the same amount of radon, the CDC agency notes. And if children are also exposed to tobacco smoke, the risk of getting lung cancer increases at least 20 times.
  • What’s the solution? The primary fix is a vent pipe system and fan that pulls radon from beneath the home and vents it to the outside air. Sealing foundation cracks and other openings can help. Contractors who offer to test, interpret test results or mitigate high levels of radon must be certified by the Florida Department of Health. For an up-to-date list of those firms, click here.

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