Radon — The Forgotten Environmental Health Story

November 27, 2019

TipSheet: Radon — The Forgotten Environmental Health Story

By Joseph A. Davis

Radon kills. 

Each year in the United States, lung cancer caused by radon takes the lives of an estimated 15,000 to 22,000 people. That makes it the second-highest cause of lung cancer after smoking.

Yet this life-and-death environmental health story is often overlooked, partly because it is an old tale with few villains. 


Why it matters

The predominant source of radon in air is naturally occurring geologic formations. Sometimes underground miners are exposed to radon. 

The most common exposure, however, is to people in homes and other buildings where radon seeps into basements from surrounding rock. 

Since radon is a colorless, odorless gas, harmful even in small quantities over long periods of time, it is hard to be aware of it.

The most common radon exposure is in homes and other buildings where the gas seeps into basements from surrounding rock. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Click to enlarge.

Radon exposure matters to your audience not only because it can be fatal. And it is often compounded — and confounded — by smoking. More than half of people with lung cancer die within a year of being diagnosed, according to the American Lung Association. 

If that isn’t enough, it also harms real estate and home sales.

And it is also quite preventable. 


The backstory

Epidemiological studies of radon exposure effects go back to the 1970s

Then, as concern about radon in U.S. homes and buildings grew in the 1980s, Congress directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in Superfund amendments of 1986, to study radon risks, determine methods of reducing exposure, coordinate federal agency efforts and launch public information programs to address radon. 

Congress amplified this mandate in the Indoor Radon Abatement Act of 1988, but still did not give regulatory power to EPA, which is but one focus of an interagency National Radon Action Plan. EPA still gives out some grants to support state radon programs.

States, however, do have some further powers. Laws vary by state. Thirty-four have passed legislation addressing radon, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

Twenty-nine of those states require home sellers to disclose radon hazards. Many states require radon inspectors or mitigators to be licensed, while others require new construction to be radon-resistant.


Testing, mitigation can help

One key first step in addressing radon is testing. Hardware stores sell home radon test kits that consumers can set out in their basements and then send to a commercial lab for results. 

These tests are better than nothing. But it is important to realize that radon concentrations can vary enormously over time and location, as conditions change. More comprehensive and longer-term tests will give more meaningful assessments of hazards.


In a great many cases, radon hazards 

can be reduced significantly 

using fairly inexpensive measures.


In a great many cases, radon hazards can be reduced significantly using fairly inexpensive measures. 

In new homes and buildings, one key is constructing foundations vented and sealed so that they prevent radon from seeping in. Crawl spaces can be built so that they do not allow radon to concentrate. 

Even in existing buildings, changes in ventilation can solve the problem. Positive air pressure in basements can reduce inward seepage, and ventilation can keep radon from collecting inside. Commercial contractors have learned how to do this and many are certified.

Radon is also an issue in some drinking water, especially when it originates as groundwater. 

EPA proposed a maximum contaminant level for radon in drinking water in 1999, but never finalized it. EPA did, however, finalize a rule for radionuclides in drinking water. 

Reports required under the Safe Drinking Water Act can give you some idea of what radioactivity problem may be in public water systems. Private well owners also need to be aware of the risk.


Story ideas

  • What is the geological risk of radon in the area of interest to your audience? (Watch for an upcoming Reporter’s ToolBox on radon data maps).
  • What is your state’s law about radon disclosure for home sales? Does the state collect data on what is disclosed and what mitigation actions are taken?
  • Find a local radon inspection/mitigation contractor and see if they will tell you some stories.
  • Talk to local homeowners and realtors about their experiences.
  • Have your local schools tested for radon? Are they legally required to? What results came from the tests? What actions were taken as a result? What were the test results after any mitigation?


Reporting resources

Editor’s Note: Watch for an upcoming Reporter’s Toolbox that highlights databases that can kick-start radon coverage.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 43. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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