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Lung cancer deaths could be reduced by better policies to control indoor radon

In the UK, about 1100 people each year die from lung cancer related to indoor radon, but current government protection policies focus mainly on the small number of homes with high radon levels and neglect the 95% of radon-related deaths caused by lower levels of radon, according to a study published in January 2009 on the British Medical Journal.

Radon in the home is a natural air pollutant produced by the decay of uranium in the ground. Radon gas seeps into buildings through cracks and holes in the foundations and when it decays it produces particles that can enter the lungs and expose them to damaging radiation.

The authors of the study argue that installing basic and cheap measures to prevent radon in all new homes would be more cost-effective and have greater potential for reducing lung cancer deaths caused by radon.

At present, government policies in the UK concentrate on searching for homes with high levels of radon and encouraging homeowners to take remedial action at their own expense.

Scientists from the University of Oxford assessed the contribution of indoor radon to lung cancer deaths in the UK, and examined the cost- effectiveness of policies to control radon exposure. The authors estimate that 1100 deaths a year in the UK are related to radon, about 3.3% of all deaths from lung cancer, but less than 5% of radon related deaths occur from exposure above the current action level.

In addition, they report that many homeowners refuse to have their home tested or to spend money reducing radon levels. As a result these policies are costly and have a minimal impact on radon related deaths.

In contrast, the authors found that installing simple preventive measures in new homes is highly cost-effective. A fairly cheap gas-resistant membrane in the foundations would reduce radon by about 50%.

The authors suggest that their findings are relevant to many other countries, most of which have higher concentrations of radon than the UK. The average radon concentration in UK homes is 21 bequerels per cubic metre, but in the European Union the average is 55, suggesting that about 8% of deaths from lung cancer, or 18,000 deaths each year, are caused by radon across the EU.

The findings suggest that radon policies need to be scrutinised (particularly in populations with low average levels). The priority should be to apply basic measures universally rather than to take action only when high radon levels have been identified by measurement.

Last updated on 18 May 2011

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