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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Radon: What Do You Need to Know?

September 12, 2013

By Henry H. Bernstein D.O.

There are serious threats to children's health found in our environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourage you to test for and fix any identified radon problems in your home, as well as in all schools and buildings nationwide.

Radon is an odorless, radioactive gas found in the soil and rock that our homes are built on, in well water, and in some building materials. It is produced by the breakdown of natural materials. Outdoors, radon occurs in low levels and poses little health risk. However, when radon gas gets inside homes and buildings, it starts to change form and build up in certain areas, reaching higher levels.

The radioactive particles can get trapped inside the lungs, causing damage to lung tissue. Ultimately, radon can be associated with lung cancer, depending on how much, how long, and how often the exposure is throughout one’s life. According to EPA estimates, radon contributes to more than 20,000 cancer deaths per year in the United States.

Compared with adults, children are more susceptible to injury from radon exposure. The CDC suggests the following reasons: children 1) have smaller lungs with higher breathing rates, 2) breathe more air per kilogram of body weight, and 3) spend more time at home and school, where higher amounts of radon are often found.

The risk of developing lung cancer depends on the radon level inside the buildings where people spend their time. In homes, radon concentrations tend to be highest in basements (that is, closest to the soil and rock) and then first-floor rooms. Radon levels are lower in rooms on upper levels. Families should definitely get their basements tested for radon before making them into play areas for children.

Schools also can be a significant source of exposure to radon for both children and staff, who typically spend six to eight hours a day in the school building. In a study conducted in 16 states, the EPA estimated that more than half of the schools tested had at least one classroom with radon levels over the EPA limit. However, it is hard to determine the exact exposure level in a school because everyone is moving around the school so much, making radon concentrations different from area to area.

In homes and schools, radon testing is both easy and fairly inexpensive. According to EPA guidelines:

  • Test all frequently used rooms on or below ground level.
  • Test during the cooler months of the year.
  • Do follow-up (short-term) testing and repeated (long-term) testing.
  • If you get your drinking water from a well, it is important to test that, too, as radon is found in water.

Within the past decade, millions of homes have been tested for radon, and more than a million homes have been built with radon-resistant features. If a home or school fails a radon test (the levels are higher than recommended), there are simple and economical solutions to correct the problem and lower radon levels. Homes with high radon levels can be fixed by sealing cracks in floors and walls, installing a ventilation system using pipes and fans installed under the floors or foundation or in a crawl space, and getting the water tap treated.

It's estimated that each year hundreds of lives can be saved from future cancer deaths if homes are properly tested and any high radon levels are lowered. Smokers are at particularly high risk of developing lung cancer due to radon exposure. There is no evidence that other breathing problems (for example, asthma) are caused by radon exposure.

For more information, visit the section on radon on the EPA website.

Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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