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Air Quality Matters: The Correlation Between Cancer & Air Pollution – Are You at Risk?

Updated: Mar 25

It’s been said a hundred different ways over the years, but the old cliche still rings true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s never more true than in matters of health – and is particularly relevant when you’re talking about cancer.

By now, we should all know the importance of not only prevention but early detection of cancer. You might not know it but in Pennsylvania, the “understand prevention and early detection” reminder is especially important: The Department of Health lamented in its 2019 “The Burden of Cancer in Pennsylvania” report that the disease remained the second-leading cause of death here in the Keystone State.

Because February is National Cancer Prevention Awareness Month we wanted to put the spotlight on an air quality-related cancer culprit flying under the radar: Radon, which also happens to be the second leading cause of lung cancer in Pennsylvania.

Radon also has the distinction of being the leading cause of lung cancer deaths nationally among nonsmokers, killing 21,000 people every year.

It might not be the stuff of headlines, but radon is a real problem in Pennsylvania, where 40 percent of homes have concentrations above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action guideline of 4 picocuries per liter. 

Our geology makes Pennsylvania ripe for the stuff – there are locations throughout the state that are hotspots for radon, a substance that occurs naturally during the breakdown of uranium in the ground. It seeps into homes through cracks in the foundation and other openings.

“They call radon a silent killer for a reason,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “When we host educational seminars, people are often surprised how common radon is in this part of the state and how important it is to test your home to determine if you are at risk.”

Fortunately, radon tests can be found at most major home retailers, Amazon, and other online vendors at reasonable prices.  If you test your home and your results indicate a radon level of more than 4 picocuries per liter of air, it’s recommended that you implement a radon-reduction system.

You can learn more about that on the DEP website.

Something that you will never hear us say at GASP is, ‘Take our word for it.'

So, please don’t take our word on how important prevention and early detection are when it comes to radon and lung cancer. We ask that you do, however, to listen to our friend Jackie Nixon, whose recent experience with radon exposure and a lung cancer diagnosis is worth hearing:

I found out that many people don’t know about radon and how it can affect them. As a result of my reading and talking with various people and organizations that have been so helpful in providing information, I became a Pennsylvania Radon Awareness Advocate for Citizens for Radioactive Radon Reduction (CR3)

More education and legislation need to happen at the local level and the information must get into the hands of more people. 

The moment that inspired all of this was a home inspector who asked me, “Did you ever hear about radon?” Since then, I questioned why I am surviving so well. How was I able to walk away with no chemo, radiation, or medication?  

I came to realize that the key was getting checked out early. The key was the early detection of cancer-causing agents like radon. I also came to realize that the function of early detection could be greater than chemotherapy, radiation, and medication!   

Just by asking a simple question, a series of events spiraled into actions. Giving someone a brochure or taking the time to talk with them about the issue could save a life. Just when I thought I was about to lose mine, I found PURPOSE. Maybe I can help someone through early detection. For me, this is my way of paying it forward. I’m Stage 1 and five years cancer-free!  

So how can you reduce your risk? Two things: Test for radon and talk to your doctor about any concerns you might have about air quality that could be impacting your health.

Editor’s Note: Here are some recent studies for those who’d like to take a deeper dive into the subject:

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