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The leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers happens to be due to a naturally occurring radioactive gas called radon. Uranium which is found in rock all over the earth’s crust in small amounts decays over time into radium which then releases the gas. The higher the concentration of uranium the greater likelihood of having an issue. Radon gas is very heavy so it escapes from the ground and will be most concentrated below your knees. Outdoors the gas freely dissipates into the atmosphere and is unable to collect in dangerous concentrations. Inside, however, radon gas can enter a building through the crawlspace or foundation and accumulate to unsafe levels. Because of this historically radon exposure was related to mostly cold environments where the population would spend a great deal of their time indoors. In our modern age, however hot environments such as the South also force much of the population to seek refuge indoors with air conditioning. It has been estimated that the average North American spends 86% of their lives indoors, and that was before lockdowns. This combined with new construction trends like greater square footage, greater ceiling height, reduced window openings, and ever improving R-values all increase radon risk. A study published in Nature has shown an increase in radon exposure to the population over time due to all these trends.
Radon gas combined with cigarette smoking is about as good a recipe for lung cancer as humanity has ever come across. Ionizing radiation from the decaying radon particles damages our DNA and create genomic instability which leads to cancer. Approximately 3% of the population also has a genetic mutation which causes increased radiation sensitivity making them further susceptible to this runaway cascade.
Excessive exposure comes with a cost and we can look to Hollywood for a great example of that. The 1956 film “The Conqueror” made by eccentric filmmaker Howard Hughes would bring the story of Genghis Khan to the big screen starring none other than John Wayne. The film would become infamous, with, of 220 crew members, 91 would develop cancer, and 46 would die from one form of cancer or another. Snow Canyon in Utah where the film was shot was only a hundred miles from a government atomic testing site that detonated 11 nuclear bombs in the previous year. Normally outdoors is safe from excessive radon exposure but two exceptions happen to be fallout zones and close proximity to uranium-mine shafts. If that wasn’t bad enough the dirt from the set was shipped back to California and kept in an enclosed sound stage for reshoots. Radioactive sand in a box as it were.
Much of our awareness of radon and its negative health effects are due to a dark period of American history and the occupational hazards of early uranium miners. The federal government was the sole purchaser of uranium ore until 1971 for national security reasons. Their neglectful operation of the mines to harvest it would result in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, the 1990 act of congress, acknowledging responsibility for their mistreatment of uranium miners.
If you have ever purchased a home, you may have performed a radon test as part of the home inspection. It’s a good investment since that is the air you will be breathing for the rest of your life. Virginia has land that falls in all three risk zones that the EPA establishes. In 1986 the Virginia Department of Health surveyed 800 homes and found that 12% of them had radon levels above 4 picocuries/L the cutoff for remediation. The tidewater area of the state, east of Interstate 95 has the least risk since it is below the fall line with sandier soil. West of the fall line we have rockier soil sitting at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains which have been crumbling for an eternity in the geologic sense. The Coles Hill Uranium deposit in southwestern Virginia has been the point of contentious legal debate. It is described as the largest known undeveloped uranium deposit in the United States and has an estimated mineral value of 427 million dollars. Virginia currently has a ban on uranium mining despite multiple functioning nuclear reactors in the state and multiple legal attempts to repeal it.
Jacob Hyatt Pharm D.
Father of three, pharmacist, Realtor, Landlord, freelance health and medicine reporter
Further References and reading
Stanley, F.K.T., Irvine, J.L., Jacques, W.R. et al. Radon exposure is rising steadily within the modern North American residential environment, and is increasingly uniform across seasons. Sci Rep 9, 18472 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-54891-8
Ćujić M, Janković Mandić L, Petrović J, Dragović R, Đorđević M, Đokić M, Dragović S. Radon-222: environmental behavior and impact to (human and non-human) biota. Int J Biometeorol. 2021 Jan;65(1):69-83. doi: 10.1007/s00484-020-01860-w. Epub 2020 Jan 18. PMID: 31955264.
Garcia-Rodriguez JA. Radon gas-the hidden killer: What is the role of family doctors?. Can Fam Physician. 2018;64(7):496-501.
Samet JM. Radon and lung cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1989 May 10;81(10):745-57. doi: 10.1093/jnci/81.10.745. PMID: 2654404.
Gilliland FD, Hunt WC, Pardilla M, Key CR. Uranium mining and lung cancer among Navajo men in New Mexico and Arizona, 1969 to 1993. J Occup Environ Med. 2000 Mar;42(3):278-83. doi: 10.1097/00043764-200003000-00008. PMID: 10738707.
Samet JM, Kutvirt DM, Waxweiler RJ, Key CR. Uranium mining and lung cancer in Navajo men. N Engl J Med. 1984 Jun 7;310(23):1481-4. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198406073102301. PMID: 6717538.
Brugge D, Goble R. The history of uranium mining and the Navajo people. Am J Public Health. 2002 Sep;92(9):1410-9. doi: 10.2105/ajph.92.9.1410. PMID: 12197966; PMCID: PMC3222290.