Want Less Cancer from Environmental Causes? Let’s Get Building Codes to Reduce Radon

By Jani Palmer

As part of our Indoor Environments Division, my colleagues and I work to reduce people’s exposure to radon, the leading environmental cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

Radon comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water – where it naturally occurs. Radon gets into the air we breathe, and it can be found all over the country. It can get into any type of building — homes, offices and schools. You are most likely to get the greatest exposure at home, where you spend most of your time.

The good news is that radon is easy to detect and fix. Some radon reduction systems can reduce radon levels in your home by up to 99%. And, part of my job at EPA is to introduce radon safety features into state and local building codes, like adding a pipe to collect radon from under the home before it has a chance to get inside. If jurisdictions and states adopt codes that require radon-reducing features to be built into new homes and buildings, far fewer Americans would be at risk of getting lung cancer. After all, building a home with radon-reducing features is much cheaper and easier than fixing elevated radon levels in a home that has already been built.

Recently, I participated in the International Code Council’s International Green Construction Code hearing. At the hearing, my task was to ask the room full of committee members to not remove radon reduction features from the code. I only had two minutes to plead my case, and I think I delivered a powerful message.

Spoiler alert: The vote on my issue was not successful. One committee member believed that radon didn’t harm people; another believed that adding radon reducing features was too expensive. Neither of these are true. This means that we need to invest more time in educating codes professionals on radon. So, while I was there, I met stakeholders that just might help us succeed in the future.

Momentum is on our side. More and more state and local jurisdictions are adopting radon building codes, and many voluntary green labeling programs require radon testing and mitigation. Builders are also including radon-resistant construction techniques in new homes.

We’ll continue to work with states, local groups and industry to spread the word about the protection that radon codes offer, and we’ll continue trying to get radon covered by the International Code Council.

About the author: Jani Palmer is a scientist in the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA. She has provided indoor air quality and industrial hygiene services for public and private alike, and is currently serving as Radon Team Leader.

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