What are the Effects of Radon?

Donn Saylor

The effects of radon gas exposure include lung cancer, emphysema, hardening of lung tissue, chronic interstitial pneumonia, and chromosomal irregularities that lead to birth defects. Radon is produced when naturally occurring deposits of radium and uranium begin to break down, and the resulting gas seeps into the ground and eventually into the air. Radon gas has no color, odor, or taste and is highly radioactive.

Contact with radon can result in birth defects.
Contact with radon can result in birth defects.

Radon exposure is one of the leading causes of lung cancer. It has been shown to be a deciding factor in the development of four lung cancer malignancies: squamous cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. When someone is exposed to radon for a long period of time and breathes in the toxic gas, small radioactive elements enter the lungs and attack healthy cells. This causes the cells to regenerate abnormally, which results in lung cancer.

Exposure to radon may result in silicosis, which causes frequent shortness of breath.
Exposure to radon may result in silicosis, which causes frequent shortness of breath.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection agency (EPA) has named radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer. The EPA also states that some 20,000 lung cancer deaths every year are directly attributable to radon. Researchers in France and the United Kingdom have reached nearly identical findings.

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Respiratory ailments are also among the damaging effects of radon. Emphysema is one of the most commonly reported conditions, followed by pulmonary fibrosis, or hardening of the lung tissue. Chronic interstitial pneumonia, which causes fluid buildup in the lungs and hinders healthy breathing, is also widely seen after radon exposure. Other respiratory conditions include silicosis—a painful chronic cough and frequent shortness of breath—and lesions on the respiratory system.

Contact with radon can cause damage to chromosomes and DNA, resulting in birth defects. The radiation in radon gas harms DNA at a cellular level and hinders the development of healthy cells. If an exposed woman is early in her pregnancy, the effects of radon can lead to miscarriage. Exposure to the gas in later trimesters can cause irreversible brain damage to the unborn baby.

Screening test kits are widely available to check for radon levels in a given location. Homeowners can get a rough idea of the effects of radon in a home by placing the testing device in the lowest floor of the structure for several days. It is then sent to a lab for scientific testing. These kits are typically called short term tests, but long term testing equipment, which takes samples over the course of a year, can also be obtained.

Radon exposure increases the risk of lung cancer.
Radon exposure increases the risk of lung cancer.

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