For the thousands of non-smokers diagnosed with lung cancer, it may not have been on their radar. Undoubtedly, the questions, “How did I get this?” and “Why did this happen to me?” are at the top of their list.
Even though smoking is responsible for 90 percent of lung cancer cases in the U.S., it’s simply not the only cause. As many as 20 percent (16,000 to 24,000 Americans) who die from lung cancer annually do not smoke, according the American Cancer Society. Hazardous chemicals (like asbestos, some petroleum products), plus particle pollution (like exhaust smoke), are in this mix.
But perhaps the sneakiest culprit – and the second leading cause of lung cancer – is radon. The American Cancer Institute says that more than 10 percent of radon-related cancer deaths occur among non-smokers.
Radon gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Existing naturally in soil rich with radium, thorium, and uranium, it’s emitted through building cracks and gaps. It can also be found in well water. First floors and basements are most vulnerable due to their proximity to the ground. Radon diffuses into the air that we breathe every day, usually in very low, acceptable levels. But living and work areas with poor ventilation can harbor dangerously elevated levels of radon that can damage the cells in the lungs’ linings. This can potentially lead to lung cancer. Homes are particularly susceptible in cold weather, when doors and windows are kept closed.
January is National Radon Action Month, so be sure to utilize affordable radon test kits available through some county health departments, at hardware and home improvement stores, and online. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises testing all homes below the third floor – even new construction that was touted as “radon-resistant,” and to lower radon levels with a qualified contractor if test results show levels of 4.0 pCi/L or higher. Radon test kits start at around $10 and up; look for one that is EPA approved. Consumer Reports says that ventilating radon gas from under the basement floor or crawlspace can run from about $800 to $2,500, and about $1,200 “for an average house.”
Prevention is the best defense against lung cancer, so don’t smoke, and test for radon. If home-testing finds you at risk, ask your doctor if medical screening is necessary.
By Lisa Miceli Feliciano