In Highlighting Radon's Risks, Context Needed Every January, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies hit the airwaves to tell us that radon gas can kill and that every home should be tested for it. But that message skips over many complexities surrounding the risks from radon.
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In Highlighting Radon's Risks, Context Needed

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In Highlighting Radon's Risks, Context Needed

In Highlighting Radon's Risks, Context Needed

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

In case you haven't heard, it's National Radon Action Month.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

U: A national radon test is about to begin.

INSKEEP: Indeed it is. Every January, the EPA and other federal agencies hit the airwaves to tell us that radon gas can kill, and that every home should be tested. This is serious. But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, that message skips over many complexities surrounding the risks from radon.

JON HAMILTON: Radon is a heavy, radioactive gas that can seep out of the soil into basements and other parts of a house. There's no question that inhaling a lot of radon is bad for you.

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U: Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

HAMILTON: Phil Price is a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He's spent a lot of time studying radon. Price is willing to accept the government's rough estimate that radon causes about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. But, he says, people should know something about that number.

HAMILTON: A large fraction of those estimated deaths are thought to be among smokers. One way to think of it is, it's just one of the things that goes along with smoking - is that it increases your chance of radon-related lung cancer.

HAMILTON: Price says that piece of information has important implications.

HAMILTON: If you want to reduce the number of radon-induced lung cancer deaths in the country, one thing you could do is reduce radon for everybody. A better thing would be to reduce radon just for the smokers maybe, because they're the ones with the largest risk from radon. But of course, you'd do even better by getting them to stop smoking.

HAMILTON: Price also takes issue with this message...

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U: Radon can be found all over the U.S., and in any type of building, including homes, offices and schools.

HAMILTON: It's true, of course. But Price says the message tends to gloss over the huge role played by geography.

HAMILTON: If you live in the Louisiana Bayou, there's a lot better ways to spend even a small amount of time and money, to reduce your risk of premature death, than doing a radon test.

HAMILTON: That's because very, very few homes in that part of the country have high levels of radon. Meanwhile, in parts of the Midwest, lots of homes have worrisome levels. Then there's the question of how much radon is too much.

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U: If tests show four or more picocuries of air, simple, effective and non-expensive action should be taken to reduce the level of radon.

HAMILTON: So Field and other scientists began studying regular people in Iowa. And their study suggested that the EPA's action level...

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U: ...four or more picocuries of air...

HAMILTON: Bill Field says the target should be perhaps half that level.

HAMILTON: By everyone in the Unites States going down to four picocuries per liter, we're only eliminating about one-third of the radon-induced lung cancers.

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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