Dr. Matthew Karpenko, head of Cortland Regional Medical Center’s
Hematology and Oncology practice, tells the story of his friend.
“She’s in her 30’s and she never smoked. She has Stage
4 lung cancer,” he says. The cause of her illness — an odorless,
colorless, tasteless radioactive gas that is found naturally in soil.
“Radon is a huge factor in lung cancer for non-smokers,” Dr.
Karpenko says. “It’s the second leading cause of lung cancer
after smoking.” Exposure to radon gas and cigarette smoke creates
a greater risk for lung cancer than either factor alone. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency estimates radon-related lung cancer claims 20,000 lives
a year and costs the healthcare field some $4 billion annually.
What is Radon?
Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the natural decay of uranium
found in nearly all soils. The gas moves up from the ground into homes
and buildings, usually through cracks and holes in the foundation where
it is trapped inside the structure.
Cortland County has the highest indoor radon gas levels in New York State.
It’s a curse of the area’s geology. Soils that contain granite
and shale tend to have higher concentrations of uranium than other soils.
Cortland County also sits on extremely porous gravel that allows the radon
gas to seep through. Radon is measured by picocuries per liter (pCi/L).
The average radon reading in the U.S. is 1.3pCI/L and the U.S. EPA says
the lowest level for health risks is 4 pCi/L. New York State’s Department
of Health reports that in Cortland County, radon levels are 38 pCi/L on
the first floor of most homes and 78 pCi/L in the basement.
Testing for radon
If you can’t see it, taste it or smell it, how do you know if there’s
a dangerous level of radon gas in your home?
The easiest way is to test the house. You can test for radon yourself with
inexpensive kits available in hardware stores or online, or you can hire
professionals to do the testing for you.
Short-term test: A testing device is placed in the lowest livable floor of your house for
anywhere from two to 90 days. The radon collector is then sent to a laboratory
where the radioactive particles are counted.
Long-term test: In this case, a testing device remains in place from three months to a
year. Since radon levels can vary day-to-day and season-to-season, a long-term
test will provide a better sense of the house’s average radon level.
My home has radon. What do I do about it?
If you get a result of 4pCi/L or higher on a short-term test, experts recommend
doing another test to confirm your results. If the level is still high,
there are several steps you can take to reduce it. Some may require the
help of an outside contractor.
A radon test was done when Dr. Karpenko bought his home in Cortland a little
over six months ago. But because radon has been found in every town in
Cortland County, Dr. Karpenko suggests that everyone in the area test
“I would highly recommend it,” he says. “It’s an
easy way to reduce your health risks.”
For more information about radon, please contact the Healthy Neighborhoods
Program of Cortland County at 607-428-5410 or the Environmental Health
Division at 607-753-5035.