Does radon gas increase risk of childhood leukemia?

Recent research from Denmark suggests that children who live in homes with high radon levels may have an increased risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia (“ALL”) during childhood.  Currently, the risk factors associated with ALL are not well understood.  In fact, genetic conditions and fetal exposure to X-rays are the only known risk factors.  But, this research suggests that elevated levels of radon may increase the risk of ALL during childhood. 

As reported in Reuters Health, “[t]he researchers found that children exposed to ‘intermediate’ levels of radon had a 21 percent higher risk of developing ALL relative to children exposed to the lowest levels of radon. Children with the highest radon exposures had a 63 percent greater risk of ALL relative to those with the least exposure.” 

Okay, so what can you do?  And what the heck is radon?  Radon is a radioactive gas.  Sounds scary, doesn’t it?  Radon is an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas produced by the decay of radium, which in turn is produced by the decay of naturally-occurring uranium present in soil, rock and ground water.   All rocks contain some uranium, although usually just a small amount, between 0.5 and 5 parts per million (“ppm”).  Generally, the uranium content of a soil will be around the same as that of the rock from which the soil was derived.  Some rock types have greater uranium levels.  Correspondingly, their soils will have higher levels as well.  Certain areas in the United States have a higher potential to have elevated radon levels because rocks with higher uranium levels are located in those areas.  

Are you in an area at risk for radon?  The United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has developed a map of radon zones that generally classifies areas of the United States into three zones.  The zones give a general prediction of radon levels.  But, you cannot use the map alone to evaluate radon levels in your home.  You must test your home to determine actual levels.  

Testing is pretty cheap.  In California, you can get a kit for $5.  In other states, check your state’s environmental department.  The EPA has a list of state radon contacts.  

It is a good idea to test.  Not only may radon levels be linked with increased risk of ALL, the EPA estimates that radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.   In fact, of all the potential environmental contaminants, radon might pose the greatest risk of cancer.   The recommended action level is 4 picoCuries per liter of air – and the EPA estimates that 1 out of every 15 homes has radon levels about this limit.


Smart Mama’s Simple Steps for Reducing Radon Exposure:

  1. Test your home.  Long term and short term test kits are available.  You can purchase long term test kits for $20.00.  Many states offer free test kits for their residents.  If you buy a kit from a hardware store or online, make sure the test kit is state-certified.  Of course, follow the instructions, including maintaining closed house conditions.  You can also hire a trained contractor to test your home.  Contact your state’s radon office for a list of qualified contractors. 
  2. Check your daycare.  If your infant is placed in a daycare, ask if the building has been checked for radon.  A lot of times daycares are in the basements of buildings, and bottom level rooms and basements are more likely to have high radon levels than other rooms.  Of course, keep in mind that the lung cancer risk from radon exposure is related to both the radon level and the length of time one is exposed.  Consequently, if the exposure time is short, even large radon concentrations may not contribute to a significant risk.
  3. Fix Any Radon Problem.  If the testing determines that radon levels are elevated in your home, then fix the problem.  Radon reduction systems can reduce radon levels in your home by as much as 99%.  EPA recommends that you reduce your radon level if your current radon level exceeds 4 pCi/L.  The EPA recommends fixing your home if one long term test, or two short term tests, show radon concentration levels above 4 pCi/L.  However, there is no safe level of radon established.  EPA also recommends that you consider fixing your home if the radon level detected is above 2 pCi/L.  If you have a radon problem and you decide to fix it, the EPA’s Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction has a good discussion of available technologies and applicability to different foundation types.
  4. Fix your water.  If you have determined that elevated levels of radon are present in your drinking water, then you can fix it.  You can remove radon in water before it enters your home with a point of entry system.  Please note that radon in drinking water is rarely a problem in homes that receive municipal water.
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