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Few Americans have homes tested for radon despite risk for lung cancer

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Chasity Harney urges all homeowners to have radon levels tested in their home, and to get radon remediation done if levels are high after she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at age 40.
 
 Photo courtesy of Ohio State University
Chasity Harney urges all homeowners to have radon levels tested in their home, and to get radon remediation done if levels are high after she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at age 40. Photo courtesy of Ohio State University

Kentucky resident Chasity Harney embraced a thoroughly healthy lifestyle -- eating right, exercising and never touching tobacco.

So, her 2018 diagnosis of advanced lung cancer, which came at the age of 40, was a complete shock to both her and her family.

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"When I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I didn't smoke," Harney said. "So there had to be something else out there."

A simple test revealed the likely cause of her cancer, but it was a test of her home rather than her body.

Harney's home had twice the acceptable limit of radon, a naturally-occurring radioactive gas that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers.

Unfortunately, a surprising number of Americans are leaving themselves vulnerable to radon, according to a new Ohio State University conducted from Feb. 2-4 among a sample of 1,006 people.

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What did the survey find?

Three in four Americans (75%) have never had their homes tested for radon, while more than half (55%) aren't concerned at all about radon exposure, the poll found.

"Radon is something we can do something about and is a known cause of a horrible disease, lung cancer," said Dr. David Carbone, director of the Thoracic Oncology Center at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Radon is a colorless, odorless gas emitted from the breakdown of radioactive material in the soil under people's homes. The gas seeps up through building foundations and accumulates in people's basements and throughout homes.

"This is more of a problem with modern homes because they tend to be more and more sealed up inside and weather-tight, and the radon just doesn't have anywhere to go," Carbone said. "It goes into the house and it just builds up there."

Harney recalls she and her husband didn't want to shell out the extra bucks it would take to test for radon in the home they were buying.

"That was a choice on the home inspection, for your home to be checked for radon, and that cost money," Harney said. "When you're buying a home, you don't want to spend that money. And so we didn't check it."

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About 15% to 20% of lung cancers occur in people who've never smoked, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s, researchers said.

The effects of radon on the lungs is cumulative and can be delayed for decades, Carbone said.

"So your children playing in your basement or going to school today, exposed to unknown levels of radon, could be at risk for developing lung cancer 10, 20, 30 years from now," Carbone said in a university news release. "And because the gas is totally colorless and odorless, you would have no idea you were being exposed unless you knew the importance of proactively testing."

Radon testing is easy to have done, Carbone said, and it's also relatively simple to remove radon from a home once it's detected.

"The typical remediation consists of drilling a small hole in the foundation of your house and installing a pipe that sucks the air out from under your house and blows it outside," Carbone said. "Rather than having it percolate up into your house, the radon gaskets send it outside your house."

Carbone said he strongly supports potential legislation to require radon testing during home sales, as well as at schools and businesses.

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Harney remains alive, thanks to six weeks of chemotherapy, 30 rounds of radiation therapy, targeted drug therapy and surgery to remove parts of her left lung.

Harney urges all homeowners to have radon levels tested in their home, and to get radon remediation done if levels are high.

"Don't think that this isn't going to happen to you because I never dreamed I would get lung cancer and I'm here," Harney said. "I'm living with it and there's so many others just like me."

More information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more about radon.

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