I remember one of my first scientific explorations. My dad had constructed a little bug box for me, made out of wood and some dark netting. It even had a little swinging front door. I would fill it with some leaves and a damp paper towel and go exploring, climbing over tree trunks in my back yard and looking under rocks. I would spend my time catching caterpillars and grasshoppers with my friends and staring at them through the netting.

Science (aka exploring the world around us, coming up with ideas for how it works, and applying our findings to solutions) has always been a big part of my life. My first full-time job after graduating was to teach middle school students about the world and how they could explore it. I loved seeing their eyes widen in amazement as they thought about things differently for the first time!

As I start at a new position in Atlanta, I am learning about how a topic in chemistry has run head-on into our daily lives, and most of us don’t even know it.

Radon. 

We breath it every day. Should be harmless, right? I thought it was just an inert gas. Maybe glows? 86 protons?

What I didn’t realize is that radon gas causes cancer. Lung cancer, maybe skin cancer as well. Whaaa? (That was literally my first reaction).

Cancer has found its way into my sphere, unfortunately, over the years. I have lost the presence in my life of my grandfather and a close friend to cancer. Anything that we can do to minimize the risk of cancer for people around us is high on my priority list.

Radon is a radioactive element, and it is found in all of the air we breathe. It’s natural, seeping from rock and soil that contains uranium and radium. As these elements decay, radon is released as a gas. The problem is that as it breaks down itself, it releases alpha particles that can go bump electrons off of other molecules. Plus, the products of radon decay are the same, shooting off alpha particles as they decay. This is where the problem lies.

Alpha particles can cause DNA damage in cells because of their ability to bump electrons off of molecules, and we know that DNA damage can result in cell mutation and tumors. When we breathe in air that includes radon, we are exposing our lungs to this bombardment by alpha particles. It’s the same kind of radiation that caused gruesome deaths for the Radium Girls, except this time it is embedding itself in the air inside our lungs instead of inside of our bones. When radon’s decay products stick to our skin, they bombard our skin cells with these particles as well. This is how radon causes cancer. It is the second highest cause of lung cancer in the United States.

lung infogram
Infograph from SketchPort

Radon is in the outside air at about a concentration of 0.4 pCi/L. Even though no radon level is safe, we have to consider that a low level contains much lower risk of cancer than living in a high level. The problem arises when our homes start to store up radon in high amounts. Levels over 4 pCi/L are considered a high risk, and a simple fix (between $1,000-2,000 cost) of adding a vent, fan, and some well-positioned holes in a system called Active Sub-slab Depressurization (ASD) can lower house levels to a “safe” zone.  Fixing a home to lower the radon levels is called radon mitigation.

But how do you know if you are living, breathing, and sleeping in a dangerous level of radon? Test your home.

I tested my home just this past weekend using Radalink’s AirCat monitor (you can find a home inspector in your area who can test your home with the same reliable device). Or you can use a mail-order test kit as well. My home came out at 2.3 pCi/L, which the EPA deems as an acceptable level. I’m overjoyed to know that my family isn’t being placed at a high risk to radon-induced lung cancer. But I know that I will now keep radon in mind when I move to a new home, and will definitely get my home inspector to test for it before I move in.

But what about your family?

After learning about radon, I feel strongly that every family should test their home. Why take the risk that the loves of your life are being exposed to an invisible hazard? If you have questions about testing your home, comment below and check out the EPA’s Citizen’s Guide to Radon for more valuable information.

I would love to hear about your thoughts on radon, as well as about your experiences testing for it and potentially fixing the problem in your home. The comments section is for you.

Click this link to see a short video that Pennsylvania is using to alert its citizens to the danger of radon gas. Remember, even if you don’t have a basement, your lower level could also be experiencing high levels of radon.

Stay safe!

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