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About five billion years ago, stars merged and exploded, creating uranium that eventually became embedded in the Earth. As uranium decays as part of a natural process, it emits radon, a radioactive gas. This gas can seep into homes and other buildings through pipes and cracks in foundations. If present in high enough concentrations, the gas and its byproducts can damage lung tissue and cause lung cancer.
This guide will explore:
- Why is radon a public health threat?
- How do I know if I’m at risk from radon?
- What is radon testing?
- How can I get a radon test?
- What level of radon is unsafe?
- How do I get rid of radon?
- Where can I get more information on radon?
- How do I share tips, questions and experiences with reporters?
Radon is prevalent across the country, but particularly in areas with large uranium deposits. The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey identified areas where it is a greater concern. (See if you live in one of these areas by checking your state map.)
We learned about radon risks while reporting on the lingering health threats from the three-decade uranium mining boom in the United States that peaked during the Cold War. It quickly became apparent that many people are unaware of risks from radon and struggle to find accurate information on the radioactive gas.
Mauricio Rodríguez / ProPublica
Take Jackie Langford. When she moved into a home near a former uranium processing site, no one alerted her to the dangers of radon. Many of her neighbors had also been surprised to learn of the risks. That’s partly because there are no federal laws requiring developers and property owners to disclose information about the presence of the cancer-causing gas, regularly test for radon or construct buildings in ways that prevent the gas from seeping into homes.
Ed Ou for ProPublica
Langford took steps to protect herself that others can take, too. To understand these steps, we spoke with state radon officials, environmental scientists and health specialists, as well as residents who live with varying radon levels in their homes. We also dug into global health reports and federal data.
Why is radon a public health threat?
Breathing in radon can be dangerous. Its radioactive particles decay in the lungs, releasing small bursts of radiation. Research shows this can damage lung tissue and cause lung cancer.
In the U.S., exposure to indoor radon accounts for 7,000 to 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to estimates by the EPA. Only cigarettes cause more annual lung cancer deaths.