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Most of us are familiar with the cancer-causing properties of cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes can lead to lung cancer, bladder cancer and possibly other tumors. 

What is less well-known is that 20 percent of people who annually die from lung cancer never smoked cigarettes. This turns out to be about 20,000 Americans each year. 

The second leading cause of lung cancer deaths in the United States, behind cigarettes, is exposure to radon gas, the decay products of which can damage the lungs and cause lung cancer. Radon-induced lung cancer is among the top 10 causes of cancer deaths in the U.S., and radon and cigarette smoke combined are more dangerous than either one on its own.  

The information we have concerning the detrimental health effects of radon comes from large health studies about underground miners who were exposed to radon as a result of their occupation. Similar studies in China and Europe showed exposure to radon does increase lung cancer risk.  

The damaging effect of radon occurs because radon gas is transformed into radioactive particles that can be inhaled and then deposited into lung tissue. These particles deliver a significant dose of radiation to lung tissue, which leads to breakage in the DNA of lung cells, which can give rise to lung cancer.

It is estimated that one out of every 15 homes have high levels of radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally in the ground, in soil and bedrock. It does not have odor or color. Radon can seep into our homes due to cracks in the foundation and other defects in the substructure of a building, and it can also be released into a home from well water. High radon levels in homes have been found in all types of houses throughout the country.

As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends homes be tested for radon, and if a high level is found, steps be taken to reduce the concentration to a safe level (below 4 pCi per L, or picoCuries per liter of air) in order to reduce lung cancer risk. Most hardware stores sell radon testing kits home dwellers can use on their own. These can be in the $15 to $25 price range. If high radon levels are detected, then the cost of making corrections to the foundation of the house can be in the $800 to $1,500 range. When going through the process of purchasing a new home and the subsequent home inspection, be sure to include a radon test as part of the information you need to make an informed decision.

Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals. 

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