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Radon Poses Major Health Risk to Communities Across U.S., New Report Says State Governments Must Act

Harvard Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation and Maine Lung Cancer Coalition identify policy solutions for states to mitigate harmful radon exposure.

Across the United States, a dangerous, natural gas rises from the ground and permeates through homes, schools, residential facilities, and other buildings where people live, work, and learn. This gas–radon—is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and results in an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A new report by Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI) and Maine Lung Cancer Coalition (MLCC), released during National Radon Action Month, highlights how state laws and policies can reduce radon’s deadly effects, yet often do not.

The new report, titled Radon Risk Reduction: A Fractured Policy Landscape, analyzes results of a 50-state survey of laws and policies that address radon, highlights inequities in radon exposure, and identifies policy solutions to support stronger and more equitable radon risk reduction programs. Among the report findings is a clear illustration of the ways in which radon disproportionately negatively impacts low-income communities or those with less agency over where they live, such as people in assisted living facilities, youth in group homes, and people who are in prison.

“Like other environmental hazards that impact health—exposure to lead, water pollution, and air quality, to name a few—radon poses a major threat to public health and health equity,” said Robert Greenwald, Faculty Director for CHLPI. “Radon disclosure, testing, and mitigation laws vary widely from state to state, leaving many people unaware of the health risks they are facing and unable to address radon exposure due to lack of resources. Our report outlines how state government actors can fill the gaps in our fractured radon policy landscape and use sound policy to protect our communities.”

The new analysis also finds that policy responses to radon do not often correlate with the actual geographic risk of radon. Some states with very high average levels of radon lack key components of a comprehensive response. The average indoor radon levels in Maine, for example, are comparatively high. While state laws in Maine address some aspects of testing and disclosure, there are no requirements regarding actual mitigation. Health care professionals in the Maine Lung Cancer Coalition are working to fill these crucial gaps.    

“We are pleased to collaborate with the team at CHLPI on this important work, which will inform the Maine Lung Cancer Coalition’s radon policy and education efforts in our state,” said Neil Korsen, a Physician Scientist at the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Maine Medical Center and Principal Investigator for the Maine Lung Cancer Coalition. “We look forward to working with our partners throughout Maine to inform the public and policymakers about radon, the number two risk factor for lung cancer, and to reduce barriers to disclosure, testing and mitigation.”

Virtually all states have room for improvement. CHLPI and MLCC identify core components of a model radon regulatory program, including disclosure requirements so that the public is aware of the radon risks around them, radon testing requirements for all publicly-owned and many privately-owned buildings, required mitigation systems for elevated radon levels, and testing and mitigation support for communities where cost is a barrier.

“Not only will better policies save lives, but they will also reduce the prevalence of lung cancer and protect those who can’t protect themselves,” said Sarah Downer, Associate Director of Whole Person Care at CHLPI. “Our model policies offer states solutions that prioritize the needs of all residents, including low-income communities and those whose living conditions depend on public or private entities. We urge state governments to take action now and protect their residents from dangerous radon exposure.”

The report, Radon Risk Reduction: A Fractured Policy Landscape, is available online at: http://chlpi.flywheelsites.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Radon-Risk-Reduction-Report-v15.pdf.

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