The Grave Health Threat of Long-Term Radon Exposure

Of the myriad hazards lurking unseen in homes, radon merits serious concern. This invisible, radioactive gas has a big impact on health when exposure occurs over many years. Radon is estimated to be the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. But it also threatens non-smokers by decaying into damaging radioactive particles that wreak havoc once inhaled. Understanding the breadth of problems long-term radon exposure induces makes taking action to protect your household critical.

Where Radon Comes From

Radon originates naturally from the radioactive decay of uranium found in nearly all soil and rock formations. Outdoors it quickly dilutes to low concentrations. But indoors it accumulates, especially in basements and lower levels in contact with the ground. As radioactive elements further decay, they release bursts of damaging radiation that can lead to lung cancer. Radon and its decay products emit alpha and gamma radiation.

How Radon Enters Homes

Outdoor radon seeps up from the soil through cracks and openings in home foundations. It gets sucked inside by air pressure differentials when heated or conditioned air exits upstairs from the home. Any gaps or pores in basement or ground floor slabs allow radon to migrate in. It then circulates throughout living spaces when drawn upstairs through HVAC systems, stairs, and interior wall cavities. Prolonged exposure occurs when elevated radon goes unchecked for months or years.

Risks of Lung Cancer

Radon exposure strongly correlates with increased rates of lung cancer, causing an estimated 21,000 deaths annually. The radioactive particles emitted when radon further decays have a half life of just a few days. When inhaled into the lungs, these charged atoms release bursts of energy that damage DNA and lung tissue. The cumulative mutations they cause often result in malignant cancerous growths over time.

Smoking combined with high radon exposure increases lung cancer risks even further. But radon is responsible for approximately 10% of lung cancer deaths even among non-smokers. Children are especially vulnerable to radon’s effects. Overall, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer for non-smokers. The prolonged cell damage from high radon accumulation greatly raises one’s lifetime odds of developing lung cancer.

Other Cancers Linked to Radon

In addition to lung cancer, research indicates radon may contribute to elevated risks for other cancer types through radiation exposure throughout the body. For example, evidence links radon inhalation to increased rates of leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer. Radiation is known to damage stem cells which can lead to leukemia. Studies also suggest connections between long-term radon exposure and stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, skin melanoma and more.

The radioactive particles inhaled from radon decay can enter the bloodstream and travel far beyond the lungs. The radiation they emit over prolonged periods damages DNA and cells throughout the body, causing mutations that enable cancer growths. Reducing radon levels protects more than just lung health.

Genetic Harm to Cells

On top of increased cancer risks, the ionizing radiation from radon decay products also inflicts genetic damage. DNA molecules are particularly vulnerable to radiation. The alpha and gamma particles emitted when radon decays into other elements can alter DNA structure through direct energy transfer.

This radiation acidifies the bonds holding DNA together, fracturing its double helix form. Permanent genetic mutations occur if the body fails to properly repair this DNA damage. Changes to genetic coding raise the risk of cancerous transformation. This genotoxic threat compounds over years of radon exposure. The genetic harm can also pass to offspring.

Respiratory Risks

Inhaling radon decay products may irritate and inflame lung tissue over time. The charged particles become trapped in the lungs when embedded in mucus. Their ionizing radiation causes oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. Evidence links radon inhalation to worsened asthma symptoms, reduced lung function, and higher rates of respiratory infections.

Radioactive particles also scar lung tissue through radiation fibrosis. This excess scar tissue stiffens the lungs, reducing respiratory capacity and ability to oxygenate blood. The combination of lung inflammation and fibrosis from prolonged radon exposure can lead to chronic breathing problems. Reduced lung function also lowers one’s ability to clear out radon particles, exacerbating damage.

Hazards to Children

Children face higher risks from radon compared to adults. Not only do kids have greater sensitivity when cells are still rapidly dividing, but radon exposure early in life elevates lifelong health risks. Young lungs are still developing, so radiation damage impairs that growth. The inflammation caused by radon can also increase proneness to childhood respiratory illness.

With a longer remaining lifespan, health consequences like lung cancer have longer to emerge after the seed is planted in childhood. Studies consistently observe greater lung cancer rates when people are exposed to high radon starting at young ages. Protecting kids from radon helps safeguard their health for decades to come.

During Pregnancy

Some research indicates radon may increase the risk of birth defects and miscarriage when expectant mothers are exposed to high levels. Radiation from radon decay products can damage reproductive cells and developing fetuses. The radioactivity also crosses the placenta, directly exposing the unborn baby.

One study observed increased risk of cleft lip and limb deformation defects in newborns whose mothers were exposed to elevated radon during pregnancy. More research is still needed, but pregnant women should take precautions when radon levels are high.

Get Your Home Tested

The only way to know if your household is at risk from prolonged radon exposure is to test levels in the home. Call a radon testing and mitigation professional to assess your situation. If results come back at or above 4 pCi/L, move forward with system installation to remove radon right away. Protect both current and future generations by avoiding needless radon radiation damage through proper home testing and mitigation.

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