Radon is a natural radioactive gas derived from decaying radium and uranium, which are common environmental toxins. Human exposure to radon has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer and can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation. In fact, the World Health Organization lists radon as the leading cause of lung cancer, in many countries, after smoking.
The most common exposure to radon occurs simply by breathing it in. What makes radon especially dangerous is that it cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled and can be found in any environment, including our homes. In fact, radon gas is more concentrated indoors than outdoors. The level of environmental radon indoors depends on the amount of uranium in the surrounding rocks. Radon gas naturally gets released by the earth and enters our home through cracks, holes, and joints in the house.
Radon causes oxidative stress by giving off alpha particles, which are a highly charged form of particle radiation (Figure 1). They have two protons and two neutrons but no electrons. As these particles are given off, they tend to “stick” to the first surface they meet. This collision causes physical damage to body tissue by disrupting the bonds that hold molecules together. More specifically, DNA may be damaged by electron displacement as well as structural changes in interacting DNA molecules.
As particle radiation damage occurs, an inflammatory response begins. Inflammation then induces oxidative stress and impairs antioxidant capacity in cells. Oxidative stress creates an influx of reactive oxygen species which can further lead to mutation and DNA damage. The damage that occurs to DNA can lead to the development of many disorders including cancer.
Radon particles usually enter through the mouth and nose as free gas particles or attached to dust particles. Because alpha particles usually enter the body through the respiratory tract, radon exposure is highly correlated to lung cancer. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency considers radon as the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.
So, what can we do to eliminate or reduce radon exposure in our homes? The best way to lower exposure to radon is improve ventilation and eliminate cracks and holes that allow radon to enter into the home. The increased air flow and blocked entrance may help prevent dense pockets of radon gas from forming. Further, checking radon levels regularly and avoiding high risk areas would be good first steps to take to reduce radon induced damage.
Guest author: Brett Tuominen is a member of the Clinical Support & Education Department at NeuroScience, Inc. and the resident expert in environmental toxins.