Radon—Second Leading Cause of Lung Cancer


Smoking is the biggest cause of lung cancer but the second leading cause of lung cancer is a gas you can’t see, smell or taste—radon.

Radon is a radioactive gas. You may remember it from the periodic table you studied in high school. It is naturally present in nature and comes from the ground when radium (another chemical element) decays. Radon has been present in our atmosphere for thousands of years but what makes it dangerous is when you inhale too much of it. Since humans can’t sense it without special equipment, you probably don’t even know you are inhaling it.

If you have worked in a mine, live in an area with high concentrations of radon or are about to sell your home you may be familiar with radon.

Radon Increases Your Risk of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States and kills more people in Kentucky than the next eight cancers combined. The National Cancer Institute estimates 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year are related to radon.

Royce Calhoun, MD, Thoracic Surgeon with St. Elizabeth Healthcare, said, “Radon is an unknown factor for many people. They know smoking can cause lung cancer but they don’t think about the effects of radon exposure.”

In cases where increased exposure to radon is suspected, the medical evaluation might include:

  • An exposure history.
  • A medical history with review of organ systems.
  • A physical examination.
  • Additional laboratory testing.

Dr. Calhoun recommends you quit smoking, “A smoker who is also exposed to radon has a much higher risk of developing lung cancer. Of the approximately 20,000 lung cancer deaths due to radon each year, only about 2,900 occur in people who never smoked.”

St. Elizabeth offers low-dose CT lung cancer screening tests. Take our health assessment quiz to see if you are a good candidate for a lung cancer screening.

Protect Yourself From Radon

The United States Environmental Protection Agency, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, and National Safety Council recommend testing your home for radon. Testing is the only way to know your home’s radon levels. Some areas of the country have higher levels of radon than others, radon is present nationwide.

In a 2009 study sponsored by the Northern Kentucky office of the Clean Indoor Air Partnership at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, revealed more than one-third of the homes in the study were at or above federal limits for radon. You can check radon rates in Kentucky based on EPA data.

The National Cancer Institute estimates we could reduce lung cancer deaths by 2 to 4 percent annually (about 5,000 deaths) by lowering radon levels in homes exceeding the highest screening level.

Fortunately, it’s possible to lower your risk of exposure. The first step is to test your home for radon. Remember, it doesn’t matter if your home is old or new and if your neighbor’s house didn’t have high levels of radon, it doesn’t mean yours won’t.