Should Homeowners Consider the Radon Threat a False Alarm?

May 29, 1997 • Commentary
The article originally appeared in Insight magazine on May 29, 1997.

“Call 1–800-RADON!” screamed the billboards in the rail stations. “Radon is a health hazard in your home,” proclaimed the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which ran an Ad Council TV spot a few years ago showing children playing in a comfortable middle‐​class living room who, exposed to radon, suddenly turned into skeletons.

The billboards have faded from view; buffeted by protests, the EPA no longer shows the television clip. It continues to maintain, however, that exposure to radon is dangerous, causing up to 14,000 deaths annually from lung cancer–a retreat from original estimates of 30,000.

Radon scarcely justifies the alarm. It is odorless, colorless, tasteless, a noble gas in the periodic table of the elements, the byproduct of the decay of uranium. Since uranium is widespread, the gas escapes constantly into the atmosphere. It is moderately soluble, so well water passing through uranium‐​bearing rocks emits radon upon contact with the air.

Even the EPA will admit that radon itself poses no substantial health risk; but its decay produces a chain of radioactive particles, radon “daughters” or radon “progeny.” They in turn decay, releasing alpha particles that can penetrate lung cells, damaging DNA and other cellular components. Humans have the capacity to repair damaged DNA and do so regularly. The agency, however, claims that the ionizing radiation produces irreversible damage that will lead inexorably to lung cancer.

Is the projection realistic? It is based on 50‐​year‐​old studies of uranium miners on the Colorado plateau. Developed after World War II, when the concern with nuclear weapons propelled a search for uranium, the mines were “dog holes”–dusty, poorly ventilated, thick with smoke. The miners themselves smoked, unknowingly increasing the cancer risk. Data were unreliable: levels of exposure, in particular, were uncertain, given the dearth of measurements in the 1940s and 1950s and the questionable value of those that were made, often by the miners themselves.

Radon, however, remained a concern of homeowners in Western Mountain states until 1984 when Stanley Watras, an engineer, set off alarm bells by walking into a nuclear plant under construction in Pennsylvania. The radon level in his home was 16 times that permitted in mines; in fact, the house had been built over an abandoned mine. Suddenly it appeared that uranium and radon were widespread; the gas became a concern not only for miners but for householders nationwide. Anxiety rose and with it the burden imposed on homeowners. Suddenly another “spook” had joined asbestos and lead as a toxic specter to be feared.

The EPA’s approach fanned the flames. Miners who had inhaled radon showed a high incidence of lung cancer, so it was inferred that radon in the home posed a similar threat, despite much lower concentrations and quite different conditions. A generation later, the EPA still was claiming that “we know more about radon risks than risks from most other cancer‐​causing substances because estimates are based on studies of cancer in humans (underground miners).” The radon specter was casting a longer shadow.

The agency insists that no level of radon is without risk. Scientists and statisticians generally view such a “linear, no‐​threshold” hypothesis with skepticism. Regardless, the EPA continues to see its mission as protecting the public from the health risks associated with indoor‐​radon. In 1988, together with the U.S surgeon general, the agency issued a nationwide health advisory urging that every dwelling in the country be tested for radon, despite the time needed, the costs imposed–an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion– and the uncertainty of the results, which can vary with temperature, time of day and season.

What would the tests find? The levels of radioactive decay are measured in picocuries per liter and abbreviated as pCi/​l. (The picocurie is one‐​trillionth of a Curie, itself a measure of radioactive disintegrations per second.) According to the EPA, those houses with levels of four picocuries or higher per liter of air should be remediated–an expensive process of sealing cracks in basement floors (even though radon can permeate concrete), installing subfloor or subslab ventilation and setting up fans or blowers to move air through the house. The agency has estimated the cost at $1,500 to $3,000 per unit; in reality, the cost can go much higher. Duct units could push the tab to $25,000.

For new housing, the agency and the National Association of Home Builders spent four years establishing mutually acceptable, radon‐​resistant construction standards for new homes. The standards specify the spreading of gravel under the slab–already a practice of many contractors–the use of a polyethylene film on top of the concrete on top of the gravel, the sealing of cracks in the slab and between the edge of the slab and the walls of the foundation. In addition, a 4‐​inch pipe must be installed running through the house from the gravel through the roof, a standard requiring a wider wall, while the attic must have an electric outlet for use in installing a fan, should the homeowner determine that radon is present and consider ventilation advisable.

Those standards will add $350 to $500 to the price of a new home, independent of location and regardless of the prospective buyer’s wishes. Many first‐​time buyers are stretched to the limit; adding even a few hundred dollars will increase their mortgage, perhaps making the house unaffordable.

Although the Council of American Building Officials agreed two years ago that the radon‐​resistant standards might constitute part of the building code for new one‐ and two‐​family dwellings, those standards function simply as guidelines. The local jurisdiction adopting the code has the final say on whether to include areas of “special construction,” such as radon. Given the current level of anxiety, unfortunately, it seems likely that towns and cities will pull radon into the code, rewriting the “standards” into code language and giving them the force of law.

On the federal level, Congress entered the arena in 1988 with the Indoor Radon Abatement Act, which articulated as a national goal making indoor air as free of radon as the great outdoors, roughly 1.3 pCi/​l. This was sheer nonsense, since the pressure differential between inside and outside means that the interior always will have a higher level. Even the EPA no longer proclaims that as an objective.

It continues to see radon as a menace, however, maintaining that four pCi/​l constitutes an “action level” making remediation advisable. It places little emphasis on the costs, even though mitigation of “unsafe levels” nationally, however those levels are defined, could go as high as $1 trillion. It acknowledges that smoking raises the risk of radon exposure but ignores the obvious remedy, an antismoking campaign.

Unable to regulate nature, the EPA has been moderately successful in frightening the populace. A citizens’ group in Litchfield, Conn., for example, has been agitating for radon‐​reducing aeration of well water pumped to consumers by the local hydraulics company on the grounds that the water contains 3,000 pCi/​l of radon, 10 times a national standard once proposed by the EPA. That standard was rejected by the agency’s Science Advisory Board and Congress as too costly and too stringent.

Thomas J. Godar, chief of Occupational Lung Service at Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital and a former president of the American Lung Association, which has been a strong supporter of the EPA’s radon campaign, has continued to insist that radon in drinking water poses a serious threat of lung cancer. Although aeration would cost consumers $200,000, the doctor considers the price “reasonable,” given that the costs of treating a lung‐​cancer patient “are about $200,000.”

A more realistic assessment comes from the EPA which estimated that reducing lung‐​cancer fatalities from radon in drinking water from 192 to 107 per year by establishing a standard of 300 pCi/​l would cost $272 million annually, or $3.2 million for each fatality avoided. Protesting water utilities claimed that the figure would be five to 10 times higher.

In general, however, the public has been apathetic. Frustrated by its failure to rouse concern, the agency has buttressed its position by ignoring those studies which fail to support its view. Of these the most important well may be a Finnish study reported in July 1996 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute which assessed the effect of indoor radon exposure on lung cancer. Researchers focused on 2,500 Finns who had lived in the same houses–having low to high indoor‐​radon levels– for 20 years; they took care to adjust for smoking. The conclusion? “Our results do not indicate increased risk of lung cancer from indoor radon.” The study implies that indoor‐​radon exposure does not appear to be an important cause of lung cancer.

The EPA ignores as well the work of University of Pittsburgh professor Bernard Cohen, whose research has documented the inverse relationship between radon and rates of lung cancer in 1,600 counties containing 90 percent of the American population. In his work, a model of clarity and rigor, he has grouped and calculated the data in more than 100 different ways, adjusting for every conceivable variable. Still the results hold: As the radon level in the homes increases, the incidence of lung cancer falls.

The research sounds the death knell of the linear, no‐​threshold theory, while opening the door to the theory of hormesis–the concept that low levels of ionizing radiation may actually be good for you. As a result of such studies, Cohen and others have concluded that those living in homes with radon levels up to 4.0 pCi/​l have a lower‐​than‐​normal chance of contracting lung cancer. While the EPA estimates that radon causes 14,000 lung‐​cancer deaths yearly, the work of the researchers suggests that raising the concentration of radon in the air of their homes might save 20,000 of those who die annually from lung cancer in the United States.

The EPA has greeted Cohen’s findings with a deafening silence. And should we be surprised? If his conclusions are correct, the EPA has bought into the radon scare and paid for it with our tax dollars and peace of mind.