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Radon: The Silent Killer

Radon, which is known to cause lung cancer, can be found in homes, workplaces, and even schools.

By Mary Beth Sallee

Managing Editor

Hart Co. News-Herald


A home is supposed to be a place where one can feel safe and secure. But whether you lock your doors or have a home security system, there is one intruder that these safety measures cannot keep out.

Radon is known as the silent killer. It is an invisible, odorless, and tasteless radioactive gas that originates from the breakdown of uranium, which is naturally found in rocks and soil. It escapes from the ground and into the air where it continues to decay and produce radioactive gas particles.

In most outdoor situations, radon quickly weakens to low concentrations. However, radon concentrations are much higher in indoor areas, such as caves and mines, that have minimal ventilation. Radon can also be found in homes, workplaces, and schools.

William Andrews, PhD, P.G., is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Kentucky. According to Andrews, radon can enter a home through cracks in the foundation or through water derived from groundwater wells.

“Different rocks and soils in different parts of Kentucky naturally produce varying amounts of radon,” Andrews said. “The characteristics of those rocks and soils impact how much radon is produced, how easily the radon can migrate toward a home. The construction of the home (or the age/deterioration of the foundation) impacts how easily radon can enter a home, and the use of the home and the construction of the home can impact potential buildup of radon in the home.”

Stacy R. Stanifer, PhD, APRN, AOCNS, is an Assistant Professor of Nursing at the University of Kentucky. She further discussed how radon can enter a home.

“Radon is a gas, so it will rise out of the ground and into the air,” Stanifer explained. “When it does this, it can get pulled into homes and buildings through openings and cracks…You cannot see, smell, or taste radon, so the only way to know how much radon is inside a home is to test for it. All homes, regardless of its age and foundation type, have the potential to have high levels of radon, so it is important that everyone test.”

Radon exposure can seriously affect one’s health. According to the American Lung Association, there is an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually nationwide that are related to radon exposure.

“As we breathe in the radioactive gas, it has the potential to cause damage to the cells along our airway, leading to lung cancer,” Stanifer said. “While everyone is at risk for radon-induced lung cancer, the risk is even greater to those who are also exposed to tobacco smoke.”

Testing is the only way to know if you and your family are at risk from radon exposure. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that homes be tested every two years.

“There are different low-cost radon measurement kits available that people can use to measure their living space,” Stanifer said. “Often times, the Kentucky State Radon Program or local health departments have these charcoal based test kits available for free. Otherwise, they cost about $10-$15. You can also hire a certified radon measurement specialist to test your home. In addition, there are four public libraries in Kentucky that have kits available for patrons to borrow for free. Those libraries include the Rowan, Pulaski, Logan and Hopkinsville-Christian County public libraries. All kits will contain instructions on where to test in the home, but generally you would pick the lowest livable level of the home where someone in the household spends at least eight hours per week.”

According to the EPA website, the average indoor radon concentration for homes in America is about 1.3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The EPA recommends that homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L or more. As there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, the EPA also recommends that homeowners consider fixing their home even if they have radon levels between 2.0 pCi/L and 3.9 pCi/L.

“High levels of radon can be fixed,” Stanifer said. “If a person has elevated radon in their home, they can begin by sealing cracks and holes. It is also recommended that they contact a certified radon mitigation specialist. The specialist will then assess the living space and determine the best method of fixing the home for radon.”

As for new home builds, Stanifer said there is not enough evidence to recommend that soil be tested for radon prior to building.

“There are construction techniques that can be used during the time of construction to prevent radon from entering the home,” Stanifer explained. “However, right now it is not standard practice to do so.”

Even so, Stanifer stated that there are specific areas and counties in Kentucky that may have higher levels of radon exposure than others.

Radon risk potential map of Kentucky. Courtesy of Stacy R. Stanifer.

“From what we know about homes that have been tested in Kentucky and the known types of rock and soil, we can say that there are areas of Kentucky that have greater radon risk potential than others, but it is important for all homes to be tested regardless of where they are located in the state,” Stanifer said.

Overall, no matter where you call home, it is important to test for the silent killer known as radon.

“Kentucky has a lot of radon risk potential. Coupled with the tobacco use in our state, we have far too many Kentuckians being diagnosed with lung cancer,” Stanifer said. “We should all recognize radon as a potential threat to our health and work to make sure all indoor spaces are safe.”

To check your county’s levels of radon, visit the University of Kentucky BREATHE website at

If radon is detected in your home, find a list of certified professionals at this link:

For additional information about radon, visit the EPA website at

This is an example of a radon mitigation system constructed to help reduce the level of radon in a home. Photo by Stacy R. Stanifer.



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