In the previous three sections we identified specific populations of Vermonters at risk from environmental health threats: children, seniors, and the chemically sensitive. When discussing radon, however, the Vermonters at risk are those who live in buildings that contain high levels of this naturally occurring radioactive gas. The only way Vermonters can determine if their homes contain high levels of radon is to test for it.
Although considered the second leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco, radon continues to be a potential health threat overlooked or ignored by most Vermonters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 30,000 lung cancer deaths annually can be attributed to radon. That translates into about 40 Vermont deaths each year from radon. The risk of lung cancer is increased even more for a smoker exposed to radon gas.
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that can leak into homes and other buildings through cracks or holes in the foundation. Radon levels are measured in units called pico Curies per liter of air (pCi/l). Annual exposure to a radon level of 1 pCi/l of air produces a radiation exposure equivalent to getting 2.5 chest x-rays each year. The greater the number of pico Curies per liter of radon in a building, the greater the exposure to radiation.
The average indoor radon level in homes is estimated to be less than 2 pCi/l, while 0.4 pCi/l is normally found in outdoor air. Congress has set a long-term goal to keep indoor radon levels at or below the outdoor levels. While this goal is not yet technologically achievable in all cases, owners of homes with elevated concentrations of radon can take simple steps to reduce the level typically to below 2 pCi/l.
The Vermont Health Department maintains a database with radon levels for nearly 12,000 homes and other buildings in the state. Approximately 15 percent of these buildings have radon levels above the action threshold of 4 pCi/l.
Any radon exposure carries some risk. No level of radon is safe, but Vermonters can reduce their risk of lung cancer by lowering their exposure to radon. Easy-to-use radon test kits are available to Vermonters free of charge by calling the Vermont Health Department at 1-800-439-8550.