Radon Exposure: An Overview of Radon and its Risks

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Radon Exposure: An Overview of Radon and its Risks




Guest:  Dr. Bill Simpson – Family Medicine, MUSC

Host:  Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry, MUSC


Dr. Linda Austin:  I’m Dr. Linda Austin.  I’m interviewing Dr. Bill Simpson, who is Professor of Family Medicine here at the Medical University of South Carolina.  Dr. Simpson, one of your areas of interest is radon exposure.  Just what is radon?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Radon is a radioactive gas, essentially, that can produce, over a lifetime of exposure, a slight increase in risk for lung cancer.  It’s found throughout the natural world; in rock.  And, depending on what kind of rock you have in the area where you live, there may be more, or less, radon exposure.  The Lowcountry of South Carolina is one of the low-risk areas, according the Environmental Protection Agency.  But the upper part of the state is higher risk; slightly higher, not a great deal of risk. 


Unfortunately, you can’t say, from the EPA estimate of high, medium, or low-risk, whether your particular home is a high or low-risk home.  The only way to find out is to do a radon test.  A radon test is very simple.  You can purchase it at Lowe’s or Home Depot, or one of the other large box stores.  You’ll simply leave the test kit open, following the label directions completely.  Then you send it back to the company, and they send you a report in a matter of couple weeks about what your radon level is in your home.


Dr. Linda Austin:  And, if it is elevated, what do you do then?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Well, the most effective way to reduce radon is to increase air movement.  So, a fan, usually in the basement area, or the lowest part of the house; in the crawl space, will move air out, and move the radon out also, so you have lower amounts in the home. 


Oftentimes, there are other systems available, which cost thousands of dollars, that move the air out and up to the top of your house through a system of pumps and pipes, and things like that.  They’re very expensive, and probably not necessary.  All you need, probably, is to move air.  But you need to know.  That’s the main thing; to find out whether or not you have risk of radon exposure from your particular home environment.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Can you help us understand how serious this problem is?  For example, what percent of nonsmoker’s lung cancer is caused by radon, or numbers in South Carolina?  How big of a problem is this?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Right.  The numbers are fairly small.  But, it’s more like one or two percent of the cancers of the lung are probably related to radon exposure, overall.  In South Carolina, it’s probably lower than that because we’re in a relatively low-risk state.  In Pennsylvania, where, essentially, all of the state is high-risk, it may be up to three to four percent.


Dr. Linda Austin:  So, it’s a small number, unless you are that one percent.  And then it’s a very large number.

Dr. Bill Simpson:  Exactly.  And if we can prevent it by just recognizing the presence of the risk, and either moving from the house or adding movement, that’s a fairly simple intervention that can be done for a relatively low cost.


Dr. Linda Austin:  It’s fairly simple, except then you have to sell your house.  And, if somebody’s buying it, you don’t want to just pass on that risk to somebody else.  It has to be dealt with.


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Exactly, right.  Yes.  And there are companies that do radon remediation.  There aren’t many that are active in Charleston because we don’t have very many houses that need it.  But there are companies, and there are methods to decrease radon, in addition to just the plain movement of air.


Dr. Linda Austin:  This is not a gas you can smell, I gather?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  No.  It’s colorless, odorless, and tasteless.  You don’t know that it’s there unless you do the test.  And that’s the worrisome thing.  There could be a particular person on one part of a block, living in a home that’s on a particular kind of rock, at a high level in the subsoil, that may be giving them extra exposure to radon.  So, it’s a $10 test, to make you feel better.


Dr. Linda Austin:  If your house has tested low once, is that good enough forever?  You don’t have to retest?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Right.  Unless you do something major, as far as renovation in your home.  If you add new sources of rock in your home; new granite counter tops, and those sorts of things, there’s a possibility, even, with changing the kind of material that’s in your home.  Most of these that are formed, that are not natural rock, are not going to have any risk of radon.  But the natural stones may, potentially.  So, if you add a lot of tiles on the floor; new counter tops, those sorts of things, there’s potential exposure, not great risk.  


Dr. Linda Austin:  Any ways to test a person to see if they’ve been exposed over time?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  No.  There’s no way to test a person.  Unfortunately, all you see is the result of the exposure; and not a way to test the potential exposure.  The film badges that the radiologists and folks that work in the hospital with nuclear medicine wear are not sensitive enough to detect this.  And it’s such a slow process, over years, that it’s not easily measured.


Dr. Linda Austin:  And, impossible to treat once you’ve absorbed it, I assume?


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Right.  There’s no way to take it away.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Dr. Simpson, thanks so much.


Dr. Bill Simpson:  Thank you.


If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina, or if you’d like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection at:  (843) 792-1414.

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