The World Health Organization (WHO) says lung cancer can be cut by minimizing the risks of radon, a natural radioactive gas. The organization is launching a program to reduce the rate of lung cancer around the world.
Radon is a natural radioactive gas that emanates from the ground into the air. It is present everywhere in the world. Its concentration depends on the uranium content of the soil.
The World Health Organization says after smoking, exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. And, it adds, smokers exposed to radon have a 25 times greater chance of getting lung cancer than non-smokers.
The head of WHO's Radiation and Environmental Health Unit, Mike Repacholi, says radon exposure causes between six and 15 percent of all lung cancer cases. He says tens of thousands of deaths from this disease annually can be attributed to radon.
Although people all over the world are exposed to this substance, Dr. Repacholi says those living in cold climates are most at risk. He says the greatest exposure to radon for most people is found in the home.
"It is not a big problem in Africa because of the high temperatures and good room ventilation,” said Dr. Repacholi. “The best mitigation measure for radon is to keep your windows open so you have air circulating all the time. Because the amount of radon that is in the outdoor air is diffused to such an extent that it does not become a risk factor. It is only when the radon is accumulated in the home that does not have good ventilation."
Dr. Repacholi says radon exposure in the home is a big problem in the United States, in Europe and Japan. He says it poses potentially big risks in China and northern parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But, he says he is very worried about the situation that exists in countries of the former Soviet Union, including the central Asian republics. He says people there are unaware of the enormity of the problem they face. He says countries in this region have high concentrations of uranium in the soil.
"And with energy prices there, they are going to find out about sealing the windows and making sure that the cold air does not get in. And, so there is going to be, what I think, is quite a large problem there. That compounded with a massive increase in smoking that is going on there could produce quite a large excess numbers of lung cancer," he noted.
Dr. Repacholi says the radon threat to human health can be mitigated with relatively simple measures.
He says building codes should be enacted to minimize the amount of radon allowed to seep into a house. For example, he says a major entry point for radon is through the soil in the basement. He says this can be reduced by increasing under-floor ventilation and sealing cracks and gaps in the floor.