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The causes and concerns of radon exposure

The first time many people learn about radon is when they're buying or selling a house. But this gas, which has no smell, is more than just something to check off in your home inspection. Radon is a leading cause for lung cancer. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Linda Lowen and Lorraine Rapp speak with John Martin from the Environmental Protection Agency about the causes and concerns of radon exposure.

Linda Lowen: What causes radon? Where does it come from and why is it a health hazard? How does it enter our homes?

John Martin: First of all, radon is a radioactive, colorless, odorless gas that occurs as a product of uranium. Most of the radon in indoor air comes from soil underneath the home. So as uranium breaks down, radon gas forms and seeps into the house.

Lowen: And how is it detected and measured? What’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable?

John Martin: Testing is the only way to know if you and your family are at risk from radon. So the EPA and surgeon general recommend testing all homes, a great way to get a hold of one of these tests is through the New York State Department of Health. Their website is health.ny.gov and these tests are very affordable. They cost typically under $10. I think the average price for them is $8.50. This could be done by a family member or if you prefer there are licensed professionals who can also conduct these tests.

Lorraine  Rapp: If there’s uranium in the soil, is it possible that that will actually leak into our water system as well?

John Martin: If your home uses ground water, so you have a well, it is possible that you will have radon in your water as well. So radon gas can dissolve and it can accumulate in ground water. There are also tests that can be done if you do use ground water, if your family uses ground water, and I would urge people to call EPAs safe drinking water hotline. If you just Google EPA's safe drinking water hotline you can get information about how you can test for radon in your water as well.

Rapp: So let’s say you’re buying a house, sometimes through that transaction you’ll find out maybe the home that you’re about to purchase or even sell has a problem with radon. Or maybe you’ve gotten one of these kits and you see the level is higher than what they recommend, once it’s found in the home, what can a home owner do?

John Martin: Well the good news is that if you do have a radon problem it’s relatively easy to fix. There are straightforward, proven, cost-effective methods that can be undertaken. So typically the solution is a 3-inch pipe is installed throughout the house. That draws the radon away from the house and vents it off the roof. If you are somebody who is looking into building a new home, there are methods that you can utilize to make your home radon resistant for new construction.

Lowen: I found it startling that it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Why do you think that most of us don’t know this statistic?

John Martin: That’s right. It is an issue that needs more attention. Not only is it the second leading cause of cancer in the country, it is the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers. So if you’re a non-smoker and if you are concerned about lung cancer, as you should be, I would urge you to pay more attention to radon and the possibility that your home does have radon.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.