What is Radon Poisoning, and Why Should We Care?

An introduction to our series on radon

By Katherine Chesterman

Radon is found almost everywhere throughout the world in the air and soil. So, with the increase of countries taking action to protect their citizens from radon poisoning, it is important to take a look at what radon poisoning is and why it is such a risky illness. In this first post in a series about radon, we’ll take a look at what it actually is and how it can affect our health. 

What is Radon Poisoning?

Radon, a colorless and odorless gas, is a byproduct of radioactive decay. Uranium is a heavy metal that is found in most rocks in small quantities, approximately 2-4 parts per million (ppm), that gives off low levels of radiation. As it undergoes radioactive decay, uranium breaks down to form radium. Then as radium breaks down through radioactive decay, its byproduct is mainly radon. 

Since radon is a gas at room temperature, it is capable of leaving the soil and getting into stream water and the atmosphere. Although the amounts that are present in such sources are typically at such a low volume that it isn’t harmful, breathing in too much of the gas will present health issues. When this occurs, it is referred to as radon poisoning. 

Some common indicating symptoms of radon poisoning are: persistent coughing; wheezing; hoarseness of the throat; coughing up blood; shortness of breath; frequent infections (such as pneumonia); chest pains; reduced appetite and/or weight; and fatigue. Some of these symptoms are also indicators of other maladies, so it’s important to know more about your area and to consult your doctor in order to know if you could be at risk for radon poisoning

In particular, Lancaster County is a high risk area for radon. As of 2017, it was reported that  approximately 60% of homes in Lancaster county had high radon levels. The Pennsylvania state average is around 40% of homes having unhealthy radon levels. In the Lancaster homes, the amount of radon was around 13.2 picocuries per liter, which is roughly three times higher than the EPA’s 4 picocuries per liter level of safe radon levels in the home. 

How Radon Poisoning and Lung Cancer are Connected

Long term exposure to radon may lead to lung cancer. In fact, it is the second leading cause of lung cancer. You don’t have to be exposed to large doses, but small to moderate doses of radon over a longer period can induce serious illness. As you inhale radon, it releases radiation into your lung cells. Over time the radiation that is introduced to the cells will damage them, causing them to produce cancerous cells within the lungs. Since this process takes a long time, it isn’t always easy to detect. This is why it’s important to educate yourself on radon and the risk levels near your home. 

Looking Ahead

When looking at a serious and permeating issue like radon poisoning, it is easy to feel like there is nothing to be done to protect yourself. In future posts, we’ll explore ways to see the local risk of radon, how to test your home for high radon levels, and what you can do to mitigate the risks locally.

The resources on this site should not replace professional medical care. Readers should consult their medical providers to discuss their healthcare needs.

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