Keep your home safe: Why radon needs to be on your radar

Radon is a radioactive gas that can affect your health and it could be in your home. Like carbon dioxide, we cannot see it, taste it or smell it. Exposure to radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

“It is possible radon is the cause of lung cancer in patients who haven’t smoked,” explains Prabhat Pokhrel, MS, MD, PhD, FAAFP of McLaren Flint, “especially when identifying the cause of the cancer is difficult.”

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 21 thousand Americans die each year from lung cancer due to radon exposure. This gas comes from the radioactive decay process within the earth’s soil and rocks. It can seep into your home and buildings in several ways.

Prabnat Pokhrel, MD

“Radon can enter through holes in the foundation, a crack in the basement or on the first floor,” added Dr. Pokhrel. “If you don’t have a basement, it can also come through a sump pump. The water coming into it can carry radon.”

Any home can have radon gas present, no matter if it is old or new. The EPA Radon Zones Map shows the levels of radon exposure by county, across the country. In Michigan, Dr. Pokhrel estimates that one in five homes have radon.

“There’s no safe number for radon,” says Dr. Pokhrel. “If you have a home, if you are buying a home or if you are selling a home, it’s best to test if you have radon.”

Radon testing kits can be purchased at local stores or online. They are inexpensive and easy to use. Dr. Pokhrel suggests checking with your local health department if money is an issue.  For example, the Genesee County Health Department offers radon testing kits for free during the month of January and sells the kits for five-dollars the rest of the year. Dr. Pokhrel says after following the testing instructions and receiving results, if your home does have radon, the problem can be fixed. Details on who to contact to assist with testing and to mitigate radon in your home can be found on the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) website.  If radon is present, Dr. Pokhrel also suggests visiting your doctor.

“It’s good to talk,” says Dr. Pokhrel. “At least we can be proactive to make sure you do not have any symptoms of lung cancer. Symptoms can include coughing, coughing up blood, or weight loss. If you have these symptoms, we can do a chest X-ray, or CAT scan to help determine if lung cancer is present. I don’t want to unnecessarily alarm people, but I do think it’s important to increase awareness about this little discussed health topic.”

Dr. Pokhrel sees patients at McLaren Flint Family Medicine Residency Center. He has a special interest in toxins in the environment and has done extensive research in lung toxicity, including asbestos and silicon exposure for his master’s and doctorate theses.