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Deaths Caused by Radon Gas
following article appeared in The
New York Times -
Friday, February 20, 1998
Research Ties Radon to as Many as 21,800 Deaths Each Year
By Warren E. Leary
Washington, Feb. 19 - Mounting evidence points to radon in homes as an important public health problem, causing as many as 21,800 deaths annually from lung cancer, a National Research Council panel said today.
The committee said that inhaling radon, a colorless, odorless gas, was especially toxic to cigarette smokers and that much of the risk of radon could be eliminated if people stopped smoking in their homes.
Scientists said they still did not have direct proof that inhaling radon at home caused lung cancer. But using data from studies of underground miners exposed in their work to high levels of the gas, the panel developed two mathematical models to estimate risks to others. Those models projected that indoor radon contributed to 15,400 to 21,800 of the 157,400 lung cancer deaths reported in the United States in 1995.
These mortality estimates were similar to those in earlier radon reports issued by the research council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1988 and 1991, panelists said. But the new numbers were based on more studies, and researchers said they had more confidence in these projected figures.
The committee said that, depending on the mathematical model used, 2,100 to 2,900 lung cancer deaths a year among nonsmokers could be linked to radon. If the levels of radon in all American homes were reduced below the levels recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, the panel concluded, the number of radon-related lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers would be reduced by about 1,000 a year.
"Radon, particularly in combination with smoking, poses an important public health risk, and it should be recognized as such," said the committee chairman, Dr. Jonathan M. Samet of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, speaking at a briefing called to release the report.
Radon is a byproduct of the decay of uranium and radium, both of which occur naturally in most soils and rocks. The gas seeps into basements and can accumulate in high concentrations in unventilated areas. As radon breaks down, it produces charged particles that stick to dust and other material inhaled into the lungs. These radon byproducts produce high-energy radiation, called alpha particles, that can damage lung cells, leading to cancer.
Dr. Samet said the committee was not asked to make policy recommendations on radon abatement, but he said the report would offer guidance to the E.P.A., a major sponsor of the four-year study, if the agency wanted to modify its recommendations for reducing radon.
The environmental agency estimates that about 6 million American homes have radon concentrations above its recommended minimum of 4 picocuries per liter of air. A picocurie is on-trillionth of a curie, a unit of radioactivity.
The agency recommends that all homes be tested for radon and that those exceeding recommended levels be repaired, with features like vent pipes in basements, to reduce the amount. Critics of the E.P.A.s radon policy have said it is premature to call for widespread, and expensive, measures to reduce levels of the gas, because so much is unknown about the actual risk it poses to ordinary people in their homes.
In a statement, the E.P.A. said that the new research council study was the most definitive accumulation of data so far on indoor radon and that it confirmed that the gas was a serious public health problem.
"The study fully supports E.P.A. estimates that radon causes about 15,000 lung cancer deaths per year," the agency said.
The American Lung Association praised the study, saying it confirmed the groups position that radon was the second-leading cause of lung cancer, behind cigarette smoking. The group said that not only should people stop smoking, but that they should also have their homes tested, which costs less that $25 with a do-it-yourself kit. The average cost of fixing a home that has high levels of radon is $1,200, it said, and new homes can be built to be radon resistant for less than $300 in added costs.
The research council report noted that radon was everywhere and that people should be aware of its risks, possibly even at low exposures. Radon is not only in soil, but also in building materials, water supplies and other places that make it ubiquitous indoors, the report said, although usually at very low levels.
The committee estimated that about one-third of the radon-related lung cancer deaths each year could be prevented if gas levels in all homes were reduced to the E.P.A. guideline or lower. It added that radon was not linked to any other cancer.
Dr. Daniel Krewski, director of risk management for Health Canada in Ottawa and a panel member, said the added data of more recent studies increased confidence in the numbers. The latest estimates are based on looking at 11 studies of miners, compared with 4 studies 10 years ago. The panel also looked at eight large-scale residential studies of households around the world that were not previously available, but it did not use those in its models.
Researchers are working to produce a combined analysis of the residential studies done in the United States and Canada, and similar work is being done in Europe, Dr. Krewski said.
It should be possible in about two years, he said, to pool the results of these studies to make risk projections based on household experiences and not data from miners, a move that should calm critics of extrapolating information about miners to people in their homes.
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