Radon – Why Do We Ignore It?

By Shelly Rosenblum

Psychology is fascinating, especially when you consider how we use it on ourselves – or against ourselves to be more precise. When do we use it against ourselves? When we put things off that are good for us, like cutting back on junk food, or skipping the gym, or when we hear someone tell us to test for radon and we don’t.

While it’s difficult to perceive how something we can’t see or smell can hurt us, is there something else stopping us from taking action? After all, the Surgeon General and public health organizations like the ALA and EPA tell us that radon is a leading cause of lung cancer, second only to smoking. We usually take messages from these folks to heart, so why ignore radon?

Dr. Peter M. Sandman is an expert on risk communication. He helps people understand why we fear some things that carry little risk and overlook things which carry a huge risk – like radon. He describes this behavior with a formula: Risk = hazard + outrage. Outrage? What’s that? Suppose a company spills a toxic substance in your neighborhood, creating a health hazard. We’d be angry. Then suppose they’re not forthcoming about the quantity spilled and danger level. We’d be even more angry or OUTRAGED!

The more outraged we were, the greater the perceived risk. Even if the hazard was small, but the outrage large, we’d still perceive a large risk. Now apply this to radon: since it’s natural, there’s no one to be angry with – no outrage. With no one to blame, we somehow convince ourselves that the risk is smaller. This lack of outrage allows us to fool ourselves into not taking action. But consider this: if you found that your children’s school had not tested for radon, or if they had tested, found elevated levels and not told anyone, you’d be outraged – suddenly you would perceive the risk as huge – you would demand action. Consider further, one day your children may have reason to be outraged – at YOU – for not having tested the home they grew-up in!

Test, Fix, Save a Life. Testing is simple and inexpensive. The cost of fixing a home with elevated levels is comparable to other minor home repairs. It’s cheap insurance – against lung cancer and against having your children outraged at you! Learn more about how to test and fix your home.

About the author: Shelly Rosenblum works on the Radiation & Indoor Environments Teams at EPA’s Region 6 Office in San Francisco, CA.

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