Radon is a noble, non-reactive, gas. It does not cause immediate respiratory damage like carbon monoxide. Radon is radioactive, so when it gets near living cells, it can cause cell damage. Cell damage can lead to cancer. Radon has been linked to lung cancer through human, animal, and cellular studies. You will find an overawe of radon and lung cancer here. The latest report from the National Academy of Sciences (BEIRVI) concludes that thousands of people die each year in the US from exposure to radon.
Studies of radon and lung cancer in the general population are just now reaching the stage where they have a chance of detecting an effect in high radon regions. Here's a preliminary report of an important study that saw a lung cancer effect from radon in homes. The full report was published in The American Journal of Epidemiology (June 2000).
Our best current estimate is that, if you don't smoke now, and you spend 20 to 30 years in a house with an average radon concentration of 4 pCi/L, then you have about one chance in 100 of dying prematurely from radon-related lung cancer. If you do smoke now, stopping smoking will reduce your lung cancer risk more than reducing your radon exposure. However, if you choose to continue to smoke, the extra risk from radon will be about 5%; that is 5 out of 100 smokers will develop radon-related lung cancer than the would without radon exposure.
Looking at radon's effects from a public health perspective, the number of deaths attributable to radon in "typical small (1000 people) upper Midwest town" would be between 5 and 15. The effects would be even higher in some of the towns that I have surveyed where the average radon concentrations were up to 5 times higher than the typical town.
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