What you don’t know could kill you
By JACKIE JAHFETSON
Journal Staff Writer
MARQUETTE — Lung cancer is most preventable by not smoking. But what about being exposed to a colorless, odorless radioactive gas? Have you ever pondered about your lungs being poisoned slowly over time and eventually this form of ionizing radiation leads to cancer? Did you know that you could catch this deadly carcinogen while sitting at home, breathing in your living room air?
Radon is the No. 1 leading cause of lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers with approximately 21,000 people dying each year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
This gas is a natural product of Uranium 238 and low concentrations of it are found throughout the Earth. Though everyone is exposed to radon, people’s homes can be a source of high levels of radiation and it’s important for people to understand the impact radon can have on a person’s health, said Dr. James Baer, radiation oncologist of UP Health System Marquette Cancer Center.
“There’s a low level of radon gas floating around in the air all the time, that’s not that big of a deal. What is a big deal is when it’s in somebody’s house,” Baer said. “When you’re in the basement, if this stuff is leaching its way in, you can get higher concentrations of that and that can be high enough to cause people to have problems.”
Baer gave a talk entitled “Radon: The Other Cause of Lung Cancer” on Thursday at the Hampton Inn where a mixed-age group of attendees filled the Founders Room to learn more on how radon causes cancer and what steps people can take to prevent it from happening. And January happens to be the National Radon Action Month, so Baer said this discussion was fitting.
“For me, it’s something you can prevent. It’s like wearing a seatbelt, you know?” Baer said. “(Testing) is something that’s easy to do and easy to prevent yourself from getting hurt.”
Most of the time, the dead layers in a person’s skin stop the radon from entering the body and it dies, Baer noted.
However, if someone is exposed to radon in large amounts, over time it slowly makes its way into the lungs and these organs do not have the same kind of protection as skin does. Lungs possess layers of cells that are living. When it reaches the lungs, it either dies or it can become “mutated and carcinogenic,” Baer explained, adding, that’s when it becomes an issue.
“(Radon) is like a heavy lump and it’s moving fast. When you think of an X-ray as being sort of a .22-caliber bullet, this is just like a bowling ball. So the bowling ball comes at you, it’s going to do something, right?” Baer said.
The radiation emission that comes off of radon is dangerous because it can damage DNA, he continued.
DNA is composed of two strands and one way to think of this mechanism is like “instructions for a factory,” he said, explaining the “blueprints” instructs people on how to construct a product. But if a blueprint is removed, it messes with the system and that’s how it is with DNA, he said.
People develop lung cancers from radon radiation after 10 to 20 years of exposure, and there’s no way of detecting where the cancer originated from, Baer said.
The best way to prevent it is to test your home, he added.
Everyone is at risk to radon exposure and each region in the country varies depending on the soil and the home you live in, he said.
Radon travels into the home in different ways such as through cracks in the floors, gaps around pipes or through the amount of rain and snow during the winter months where the ground becomes moist and ventures down into those cracks in the foundation. The basement is the biggest risk area, he added.
Baer emphasized how important it is for people to test their homes and there are two ways of testing: short-term testing and long-term testing.
Short-term testing is the quickest option and the test remains in the home for two to 90 days using charcoal canisters, alpha trackers and other monitors. Long-term testing is more than 90 days and it provide a year-round reading of a home’s average radon concentration levels.
To scale the threat of radon in a home, it is measured in picocuries per liter of air. If a home has a radon level of less than 4 picocuries per liter of air, the risk is low and it’s not that big of a problem, he said.
But if a home reads more than 4 picocuries per liter of air, Baer said it’s vital to install a radon-resistant vent fan.
“The main thing for me is: this isn’t something like in the movies where you see that a guy gets really sick and stuffs starts coming out of him,” Baer said. “You have no idea it’s there.”
For more information on radon, contact the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Marquette District office at 906-228-4853. To order a test kit and receive more information, call 1-800-RADONGAS.
Jackie Jahfetson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.