The Danger of Radon

Q&A with Rachael Malmberg, Lung Cancer Survivor
Rachael Malmberg
Rachael Malmberg

Radon is a gas that is present in nearly all air. It is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is released from the normal decay of natural elements uranium, thorium, and radium in rocks and soil. It seeps through the ground and diffuses into the air. Sometimes, it can dissolve into ground water and be released into the air when water is used.

Everyone breathes in radon every day. Usually, this is at very low levels and it is not harmful. However, inhaling high levels of radon long-term can substantially increase the risk of lung cancer. In fact, radon is the first environment health threat and the second leading cause of lung cancer deaths.

While it’s generally harmless outdoors, radon becomes dangerous when it enters your home or other buildings where it can accumulate. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 1 in 15 homes have higher than recommended levels of radon. Radon levels can be higher in homes that are well-insulated, tightly sealed, and/or built on soil rich in the elements that produce radon.

This National Radon Action Month, we sat down with Rachael Malmberg, a survivor of  radon-induced lung cancer and president of Cancer Survivors Against Radon (CanSAR), to learn more about her experience with radon-induced lung cancer and how others can take action.

 

Can you tell me about your experience with radon?

Until I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I didn’t know anything about radon. As my doctor went through the criteria of someone who has lung cancer, I did not see myself at all. I was an Olympic athlete, active military, and healthy.

I turned to Google and found information about radon. I instantly realized this was a likely cause of my cancer. Within two weeks, I tested my home for radon, and the test came back high. We also tested my childhood home and it came back so high, we decided to retest thinking it was a fluke. It came back just as high the second time.

When I think of radon, I think of an odorless gas that nobody knows is there until it’s too late. It’s something that everyone is exposed to in some way or form, and it’s crucial that we are able to recognize when it’s present in high volume so we can mitigate it to ensure its safe for us.

My experience with lung cancer has inspired my passion for radon awareness and advocacy to ensure others know the danger of radon and how to protect themselves.

Do you have any tips for someone concerned about radon levels in their home?

Test, test, test! The bottom line is we have tests available that can detect the radon levels in our homes. The essential thing is completing the testing and acting on the results, whether that means continuous monitor at potentially high levels, mitigation, or even home repairs.

Many people think testing is inaccessible due to cost, but what these people don’t realize is that there are really affordable home tests available. A lot of fire departments also provide free test kits if you ask. Beyond that, many organizations offer free or low costs test for those with low incomes, such as advocacy organizations and state departments of health. Many radon testing and mitigation companies offer both free testing and mitigation to low income people or people diagnosed with lung cancer.

Most importantly, radon levels change over time and levels go up and down. That’s why it’s essential to continuously monitor. Everyone thinks with radon you’re done after one test but that’s not true. Some companies have tests that continuously monitor like a smoke detector. The monitor connects to your phone and tracks data, such as air quality, humidity, and obviously radon levels, long-term. It calculates an average so you have a better idea if your radon levels are consistently high over time. If so, it’s time to mitigate.

What is a safe level of radon?

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently recommends that you take steps to mitigate your home if you have a radon level of 4 pCi/L or more. The World Health Organization recommends mitigation at 2 pCi/L or more.

I would take steps to mitigate with any level of radon. 

What resources would you recommend for someone who is affected by radon?

There are so many great resources for someone affected by radon. Some of the best resources are those who directly work in the radon community. For example, American Association of Radon Scientists and technologists (AARST) is a nonprofit trade organization that works to make and hold standards for radon trade workers to ensure ethnical and quality services. Another, National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP), provides a certification for testers and mitigators that ensures its members are providing highest quality work.

If you are concerned about the radon levels in your home, office, rental property, school, or other community places, you can visit these resources to find additional information, such as state by state radon standards, and certified professionals to help test and mitigate your home.

How would someone interested in radon advocacy get started?

The most essential thing in radon advocacy is raising awareness. So many people don’t realize the danger of radon or that they might be affected. There are several nonprofits whose focus is radon awareness and advocacy, including CanSAR, Citizens for Radioactive Radon Reduction (CR3), and War Against Radon (WAR). These organizations will have information that can help guide you through radon advocacy so you are able to do it yourself.

Many fire departments are also interested in doing education events and providing resources on the topic, but don’t have the bandwidth or manpower to do it; consider approaching departments and offering to help man a booth or speak at an event. 

What is the one thing about radon you want people to take away after reading this?

One thing I want people to know is that radon exposure is preventable and you have the ability to save a life by making a decision to test.

It can be challenging to guess if radon may be an issue in your home; radon is invisible, odorless, and tasteless. However, it’s essential to educate yourself and invest in radon testing to ensure you are not unknowingly increasing your risk of lung cancer.

The EPA recommends that you test your home for radon every two years, and retest any time you move, make structural changes to your home, or occupy a previously unused level of a house. If you have a radon level of 4 pCi/L or more, take steps to remedy the problem as soon as possible.

 

Want to hear from more people affected by radon-induced lung cancer? Read about Gloria Linnertz’s experience with radon and lung cancer and some tips on how to detect radon here.

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Rachael Malmberg has stage IV EGFR+ Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. She leads an extremely active life:  she works full time in cancer diagnostic sales; is the president of CanSAR and WAR (Cancer Survivors Against Radon/Women Against Radon); and is a busy single mother of a six-year-old daughter.

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