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Radon: risk or rubbish?


Is radon gas just another highly publicized problem that turns out to be a tempest in a teapot, or should we really be concerned about its possible presence in our basements?

There is no doubt that exposure to ionizing radiation, whatever the source, can produce cancer. Because radon alone accounts for about 55 percent of human exposure in the United States, it certainly deserves our attention. For most of us, the only radon exposure we experience is in our homes, where the gas enters the foundation from the soil. Unfortunately, however, very little research has been done on the effects of home exposure to radon. Most of the data on lung cancer risk from radon exposure have come largely from studies of miners, the occupational group having the greatest exposure to below-ground radiation.

Last October, however, the New Jersey State Department of Health reported on a study of radon levels in the homes of 411 women diagnosed in 1982-83 as having lung cancer. These homes were compared with those of 385 women having similar ages and related characteristics who were free of lung cancer. Both groups had lived in their homes for at least 10 years between the ages of 10 and 30. Although small, the increase in lung cancer risk was significantly greater as radon concentration in the home increased. Although this study does not clearly define the risk in terms of specific radon levels, it comes closer than previous studies to assessing low-level radon exposure risk.

Like all sources of ionizing radiation, radon gas is odorless and thus not easily detected. Moreover, although there are more than 700 U.S. companies that offer radon measuring devices, no national legal standard exists for these devices. Many are, however, certified by the Radon Measurement Proficiency Program of the Environmental Protection Agency. The detection device is placed in the lowest livable level of the house (normally not the basement), left there for the prescribed length of time, and then sent to the manufacturer, who sends you a report. Because radon levels vary from place to place in the house and from time to time during the year, it is recommended you buy at least two detectors, place them in the living room and bedroom, and take two readings-one in midsummer and one in midwinter. The average of the total readings is then a good estimate of year-round exposure.

Finding a radon testing kit may not be easy, the public having apparently assumed that the "radon scare" is a thing of the past. Even so, University of Iowa researchers have found that the reliability of the available services varies widely. The two companies whose services the Iowans found to be most reliable (there may be many others, since they tested only six systems in all) are Air Chek, Inc. (1-800-247-2435) and American Radon Services, Ltd. (1-800-272-3668). The Air Chek lists at $9.95, or 3 for $24.95; the A.R.S. models are $15 each. Individual state departments of health can also supply the names of reliable companies.

For information on what to do if you find your house to have an unacceptable radon level, you can write to the Government Printing Office Washington, DC 20402) for the booklet "A Citizen's Guide to Radon: What It Is and What to Do About It." The booklet (OPA-86-004) is put out by the Environmental Protection Agency and is also available in many public libraries.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:New mammography Medicare laws in effect for women 65 and older.
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