Health officials in Michigan have begun handing out free testing kits to residents in order to find out how much of the colorless yet life-threatening gas radon is present in their homes.

As part of the state's observance of the National Radon Action Month, experts from several counties, such as Wayne and Kent, are urging Michiganders to check their homes for high levels of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is considered to be one of the leading causes of lung cancer in nonsmokers.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as many as 21,000 people die every year from lung cancer as a result of radon exposure. While there is yet to be a determined "safe" level for radon, it is generally believed that long-term exposure to high levels of the gas can increase the health risks.

"We are offering free testing kits because the only way to know whether your home has elevated radon levels is to test for it," Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, director of the Wayne County health department, said.

"Testing is best done in the winter months when windows and doors are kept closed. If a high radon level is detected in your home, you can then take steps to correct the problem and protect your family."

Wayne County residents can pick up their radon testing kits at the health department office every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,

Those living in Kent County can get their kits at the health department and its satellite clinics from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Radon And How It Accumulates In Homes

The National Cancer Institute defines radon as a radioactive gas that is released as a result of naturally-decaying radium, thorium and uranium substances found in soil and rocks. This odorless and invisible gas typically emanates from the ground and diffuses into the air.

In some cases, radon has been found to dissolve into water deposits in the ground. It is then released into the air when the affected water is used.

While radon is not particularly abundant in the air outdoors, for areas without enough ventilation, such in underground mines, the radioactive gas reaches significantly high levels that can cause an increase in lung cancer risk.

Radon can enter homes through various ways, including passing through cracks in walls, floors and foundations. It can also be released through water from underground sources as well as from building materials.

Houses that are tightly sealed, well-insulated, or built on land rich in radium, thorium, or uranium tend to have increased levels of radon. The gas is more abundant in basements and first floors of homes because of their close proximity to the ground.

Impact Of Radon On Health

When radon decays, it immediately breaks down into small radioactive particles. These particles can cause serious health problems when inhaled since they can damage the cells that line the lungs.

If people are exposed to large amounts of radon particles for long periods, they become more likely to develop lung cancer, which is the only type of malignancy that is linked to radon inhalation so far. There are studies that suggest that the gas can also cause leukemia in both children and adults, but evidence for this claim is still inconclusive.

Radon inhalation poses a lower risk for developing lung cancer compared to cigarette smoking, but it is known to be second leading cause of the malignancy in the United States. Researchers estimate that about 15,000 to 22,000 of lung cancer deaths each year in the U.S. are linked to radon exposure.

Radon Testing

As of the moment, the only way to find out the levels of radon in homes is through testing. The amount of radon particles in a house can be affected by the soil under and around the building.

Houses that are built next to each other can have varying levels of indoor radon, which is why comparing the test results of both homes is not a reliable indicator of radon risk.

Radon levels can also be affected by weather conditions, such as rain or snow, making it necessary to conduct short-term and long-term testing to find out how much of the radioactive gas is present at a given point in time.

Depending on the testing device, short-term radon detectors can determine the levels of the gas from two days to 90 days.

Meanwhile, long-term testing can measure the average radon concentration in an area for more than 90 days.

State or local radon experts will determine which of the two methods is more applicable to an area based on the conditions and needs of homeowners.

The EPA recommends for residents to lower the amount of radon in their homes, especially if their readings reach four picocuries of radon per liter (pCi/L) or beyond.

Close to one in every 15 American homes is estimated to have radon levels at or above the EPA's designated action level.

Photo: Eneko Lakasta | Flickr 

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