U.N. report pinpoints cancer risk from radon in homes

Tue Jul 21, 2009 10:30am EDT
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By Mark Heinrich

VIENNA (Reuters) - New studies have found direct evidence of a lung cancer risk from the presence of colorless, odorless radon gas in many homes, a United Nations committee said in a report released Tuesday. Officials on the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said the finding provided the first quantifiable evidence of the risk in homes from radon, long seen as a potential health risk.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies were revising recommendations on maximum levels of radon in homes and workplaces based on the 20 studies involving tens of thousands of lung cancer patients in North America, Europe and China.

"(Up to now) radon has been a typical health risk no one wants to accept or take note of," Wolfgang Weiss, UNSCEAR's vice chairman, told a news conference.

He said the report was significant because previous estimates of radon risks to the public were extrapolated from studies of uranium miners exposed to high levels of the gas.

"In the meantime we've done 20 studies in homes where concentrations are very low, and there we can see a risk, it is small, but it is certainly there," said Weiss.

"You can avoid smoking by just taking personal decisions," he said, referring to the leading cause of lung cancer.

"(But) radon is everywhere. So (you need to) develop strategies to avoid the influx of radon into houses ... It's very simple to seal basements, for example with plastic foil.

Radon is a hard-to-detect radioactive, noble gas that comes from natural decay of uranium. It can accumulate in buildings, seeping in from the ground through cracks in cellars, and may also be emitted by spring waters and hot springs.   Continued...

<p>A worker inspects a Radon monitor at the closed entrance to a nuclear waste disposal center in a unused mine near the German village of Remlingen June 24, 2009. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz</p>