Lung Cancer and Radon

Indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, according to the BEIR VI Report - Health Effects of Exposure to Indoor Radon, 1999 report from the National Academy of Sciences. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Surgeon General strongly recommend that all homes be tested for radon, and if a problem exists, corrective action be taken.

Radon is not an irritant to the eyes or nose, nor is it an allergen. The only risk from radon in air is lung cancer, after many years of breathing it.

Four picoCuries per Liter (4 pCi/L) is the EPA's action guideline for radon concentrations in air of occupied spaces. When long-term exposures are higher, action should be taken to reduce them.

"Most radon-induced lung cancers occur from low and medium dose exposures in people's homes. Radon is the second most important cause of lung cancer after smoking in many countries."

--Dr. Maria Neira of the World Health Organization (WHO)


Additional Confirmation of the Risk

According to a National Cancer Institute fact sheet: "Studies showing a link between radon and lung cancer in humans include studies of underground uranium miners and of the general population exposed to radon in their homes."  The latter is a new, significant result, from pooled results of measurements of radon in homes of persons with lung cancer and radon in homes of matched controls.  The pooled results show statistically significant differences, confirming the  risk estimates from studies of underground miners: Darby, et al. British Medical Journal, 2005;  Krewski, et al., Epidemiology, 2005.

EPA Risk Estimates (Based on 1999 NAS Report) for Long Term Radon Exposure in Homes

Average Radon Exposure

Lifetime Risk of Lung Cancer 
(per person) from Radon 

  Persons who Never Smoked Current Smokers
8 pCi/L 15 in 1,000 120 in 1,000
4 pCi/L 7 in 1,000 62 in 1,000
2 pCi/L 4 in 1,000 32 in 1,000
1.3 pCi/L 2 in 1,000 20 in 1,000
0.4 pCi/L
3 in 1,000

Anatomy image showing airflow from the nose to the lungs.

The lung cancer risk, accumulated over a lifetime (75 years) from breathing four pCi/L in one's home, depends on an individual's smoking history:

These assume one spends 70% of the time indoors, breathing the indicated radon concentrations for many years.  The risk is proportional to the cumulative radon exposure through time.  For one year of exposure, the risk would be about 1/75th as high. 

For former smokers, the risks are between those shown for smokers and never-smokers.  

Because of a latency time for lung cancer to develop, and the cumulative nature of the risk, there is little chance that someone could get lung cancer from radon before age 35, although exposures before that age contribute to the risk at later ages. The average loss of life expectancy per lung cancer death is about 15 years (out of 75).

    Last Revised: February 19, 2016