Public health researchers and geologists combine research to create radon risk potential maps for state and 15 Ky. counties

University of Kentucky health researchers and geologists combined their research on radon and created a map that shows which parts of Kentucky have the highest risk of radon exposure, and most recently created maps that focus on 15 counties, according to a UK news release.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

“It is a collaboration between two disciplines that might not traditionally be seen as related,” Ellen Hahn, a professor in the UK College of Nursing, said in the release. “There is a new and emerging emphasis on geology as we think about other disciplines, in this case, nursing and public health.”

Ellen Hahn

Hahn, who is also director of the Bridging Research Efforts and Advocacy Toward Healthy Environments (BREATHE) initiative, said she and her colleagues collected the results of more than 60,000 radon test kits from radon measurement laboratories, and UK geologists identified and mapped specific rock formations associated with a heightened risk of radon exposure.

Using these data, the researchers designed radon risk potential maps for 15 selected Kentucky counties, based on lung-cancer risk and existing local radon programs, says the release.

These counties include Boone, Boyle, Carroll, Edmonson, Estill, Fayette, Floyd, Knott, Knox, Leslie, Martin, McCreary, Perry, Warren and Wolfe. Click here for the radon maps and additional information.

The release notes that BREATHE researchers are partnering with local health organizations in these communities to share this information and promote radon testing.

The initial collaboration between these two groups produced a comprehensive radon risk map of Kentucky, which is unique because “it accounts for multiple risk factors and shows the gradient radon potential within counties and across geographic features,” says the release. Findings from the initial research were published in a 2015 issue of Preventive Medicine Reports.

What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from rock formations below the ground. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless. It is created when the element uranium decays into hazardous particles which can be inhaled.

It can be found outside and indoors, though the highest concentrations of radon are usually found in homes, schools and office buildings, entering through cracks in the basement or foundation.

Why does it matter?

Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, following cigarette smoking.

“The triple threats of smoking, radon exposure, and secondhand smoke compound the risk of developing lung cancer in Kentucky,” says the release.

Secondhand smoke exposure is of particular concern because radon attaches to secondhand smoke particles and is then breathed directly into the lungs.

Partial example of one of the county-specific sheets with maps

Hahn said she hopes to use the maps to target specific geographic areas with interventions to reduce smoking rates, eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke, and mitigate radon potential.

“The reason I am interested in radon is because of its synergy with tobacco smoke exposure,” Hahn said. “Most of the cases of radon-induced lung cancer are in people who are current or former smokers or have been exposed to secondhand smoke. If you have ever smoked or have been exposed to secondhand smoke, it’s even more important to test for radon in the home and where you work.”

What can you do?

Homeowners and property owners should test for radon every two years because only a radon test can detect radon in a home or building, says the release.

If the levels are too high, then you will need to have a radon mitigation system installed, which reduces exposure by removing trapped or contained radon gas.

Levels of radon are measured by picoCuries, which measure as one-trillionth of one gram of radon, per liter of air. Property owners should call a certified radon professional if the test kit reads at or above 4.0 pCi/L, says the release.

“Living in a home with a radon level of 4 pCi/L is like getting 200 chest x-rays per year and living in a home with a radon level of 20 pCi/L is like smoking two packs of cigarettes per day,” according to a BREATHE radon fact sheet.

Many local health departments have radon programs and provide free radon test kits, but if you are in a county that does not have a radon program the Kentucky Radon Program also offers free radon test kits. They can also be purchased.

For more information about radon, tobacco smoke or lung cancer risks, contact BREATHE at or call 859-323-4587.

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