You may have heard of radon. It’s a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas – meaning if it’s around you, you really have no way of knowing it’s there without a detector. Why do you need to be concerned about it? Well, for one thing – it’s radioactive. It’s on par with plutonium in that it releases alpha particles. (I know way too much about the types of radiation thanks to a previous job for a company that makes radiation detection equipment – don’t even get me started because I turn into radioactive Rainman…remember, science nerd over here.) Anyway, alpha particles interact strongly with matter and while a piece of paper can stop the path of an alpha particle, if it gets ingested it can cause serious damage. Breathing in alpha particles (like those that radon releases) can severely damage lung tissue. In fact, radon has been shown to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
I can hear you now, “but Nicole, this is a blog about skin cancer…why do you make us read your ramblings about radon?” Well, dear readers, a recently published study suggests that residential radon exposure increases the risk of developing malignant melanoma.
Swiss researchers analyzed 1900 deaths caused by malignant melanoma between 2000 and 2008, in patients 20 years and older. Why the Swiss? Well, Switzerland has the third highest incidence of malignant skin cancer worldwide (a fact I did not know until today). And it has increased significantly in the past few decades.
Taking into account housing characteristics and the geological conditions of the area, the study analyzed the total population of the country and modeled the effects of radon for every single household. (I cannot imagine the math involved…) The study’s author Martin Röösli said, “Our study shows that, when radon decays, radioactive alpha particles not only destroy lung tissue but can also affect the skin. This has rarely been researched in the past.”
The other disconcerting discovery – the younger you are, the greater the impact of radon on developing skin cancer. The study’s author didn’t suggest a mechanism, but suffice to say that radon is shaping up to more insidious than even imagined previously. How do you avoid radon? Well, really you can’t without leaving the planet. Radon is a naturally occurring gas due to the breakdown of certain types of rock. It can also be found in well water. Test your home to see if you have a problem. One in 15 U.S. homes have higher than acceptable levels of radon (and apparently the Swiss have a big issue as well). It doesn’t matter if you have a brand new home or a historic property. It primarily builds up in the soil under the home, although it can also dissolve into groundwater or well water – meaning if you use well water, you could be introducing radon into your home every time you turn on the faucet. If you find that you have radon levels that are high, there are a ton of websites that will tell you how to mitigate in your home if you are handy, or provide information on getting a reputable contractor if you’re not.
So, if you needed a reason to check the radon levels in your house, your lungs and your skin will thank you. (And those of your family and pets too!)