There are no symptoms of radon exposure, which is unfortunate since it, according to the American Cancer Society, is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers1. The gas itself has no odor, and you cannot see it. Symptoms of exposure would have been useful due to the lack of physical characteristics that we can sense. Because there are no symptoms of radon exposure, the only way to know whether you are exposed is by using tools that measure radon levels.
Why Some Might Think That There Are Symptoms
It might come as a surprise that there are no symptoms of radon exposure, seeing there are usually symptoms when we expose our body to something potentially harmful. Excessive exposure to sunlight, for instance, is a source of painful sunburns, as well as resulting in an increased likelihood of skin cancer2. A sunburn is a symptom of skin damage caused by exposure to sunlight. It thus functions as an early warning of the potential long-term dangers of prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.
In the case of smoking, a symptom could be the coughing associated with the bad habit. Tobacco smoking and exposure to radon are the first and second most common causes of lung cancer, respectively, according to the American Lung Association3. One difference between the two is that the former has symptoms indicating that you are breathing in something harmful, while there are no symptoms of radon exposure. Both cause damage to DNA molecules. This might lead to cancer due to increased likelihood of cell mutations.
We see that many of the things that are harmful in the long run have some immediate symptoms as well. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that the same goes for radon. Next, we will have a look at why there are no symptoms of radon exposure.
Why There Are No Symptoms of Radon Exposure
Radon, which is a radioactive gas4, damages DNA molecules and cells through the emittance of alpha particles. The alpha particles get emitted when the radioactive gas decays, and can potentially damage cells and DNA molecules inside the lungs5. This damage will in some cases lead to cell mutations and cancer.
One of the reasons why radon is more harmful than some other radioactive substances is because it decays rather fast6. Because it decays quickly, more alpha particles get emitted during the period in which the gas is inside your lungs. The probability that the radioactive gas causes damage increases when more particles have the potential to do so. Another factor that increases this chance is the level of radon concentration in the air.
If radon exposure were to have symptoms, we would have needed conscious awareness of the radiation damage. Since the radiation damages cells within the lungs, which we have little to none sensitivity of, we cannot be aware of it. There are therefore no symptoms of radon exposure. You would not become aware of the damage until after it has caused cancerous mutations.
The greater the level of radon in the air, the greater the number of particles emitted from the radon while inside your lungs. This is comparable to how more smoking or sunbathing increases your chances of getting lung or skin cancer. Radon is different from the other two because of its lack of symptoms. We can think of the symptoms of exposure as gauges, which give us an indication of how bad the exposure is.
How to Compensate for the Lack of Symptoms
We have no built-in gauge that let us measure our level of exposure to radon. To compensate, we have man-made tools that can do this task for us. Being aware of the radon level in our environment is important if we wish to mitigate the danger. By reducing the levels, we are reducing the likelihood of getting lung cancer due to radon exposure.
Airthings provide several continuous radon monitors that help you keep track of the radon levels in your household. A radon monitor helps you decide whether you need to take action to reduce your radon levels. Because a continuous radon monitor gives you a reading within just a few hours, it is a convenient measure of the actual radon levels in your home.
Why Non-smokers Sometimes Get Lung Cancer (2016, November 1). The American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/why-lung-cancer-strikes-nonsmokers.html
How the sun and UV cause cancer (2017, April 28). Cancer Research UK. Retrieved from: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/sun-uv-and-cancer/how-the-sun-and-uv-cause-cancer
What Causes Lung Cancer (2016, November 3). The American Lung Association. Retrieved from: http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/lung-cancer/learn-about-lung-cancer/what-is-lung-cancer/what-causes-lung-cancer.html
Radon and Cancer (2015, September 23). The American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/radon.html
Radon and Cancer (2011, December 6). The National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/radon/radon-fact-sheet
What is radon? And why are they saying all those bad things about it? (n.d.). HyperPhysics. Retrieved from: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Nuclear/radon.html