Radon: the Forgotten Menace

Henry Slack

Patsy Brooks


Test. Fix. Save a Life.


Radon was first recognized as a health problem and carcinogen over twenty years ago, when a nuclear plant worker set off radiation alarms going to work. Despite years of effort and millions of dollars, more homes than ever have elevated levels of radon, and more people are dying from lung cancer. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers).


This has occurred in part because our species has not evolved a way to recognize carcinogens like radon. Our noses warn us of rotten foods, but radon cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. In addition, we evolved with the greatest interest in the new and immediate, since those things could be a threat or a benefit to us. Radon is a long-term health problem, and homeowners can easily postpone action on radon for weeks, years, and even decades, since it is neither new nor immediate.


Twenty years of radon work by U.S EPA has taught many lessons about ways to convert public attention to action. For example, the Surgeon General warning about radon sparked interest and action. State grants have encouraged radon testing. Currently effective methods and techniques include radon poster contests for elementary school children; work with libraries and 4-H clubs; and traditional outreach with tables at health fairs. Many health departments and extension agencies have been carrying the message.


Many radon advocates originally believed that information would be enough to make citizens act to test for radon. This has not happened. Additionally, a few so-called experts and even some industries have downplayed the risks of breathing radioactive gases like radon.

EPA has been updating its radon outreach into the new media world. Interactive information on Web sites, Webinars that combine presentations with conference calls, and even a You-Tube video contest have all raised the recent profile of radon. Environmental health officials can use these and other tools to help get the message out:

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