No, this isn’t a tagline for a low-budget disaster film.
And it’s not the famously invisible, tasteless poison that kills Vizzini in “The Princess Bride.” “What you do not smell is iocane powder,” Westley explains as he hands Vizzini the chalice.
It’s actually a real thing – radon, a colorless, odorless gas that is formed by the decay of radioactive particles in rocks and soil. It seeps into the air, into underground water sources, and into the foundations of older houses and buildings – especially basements and crawl spaces. According to the EPA, about 1 in every 15 homes in the United States has elevated radon levels.
Radon is everywhere. It’s also the second leading cause of lung cancer in America, after cigarette smoking. Around 20,000 people die each year from radon-related lung cancer.
When you inhale radon, tiny radioactive particles get stuck in the lining of your lungs. Over time, the radiation damages your lung cells and may eventually cause cancer.
The risk of lung cancer is highest for people who spend a lot of time underground or in basements – either at home or at work. (Miners are at an especially high risk.) Radon seeps into buildings through pipes, joints, and gaps in walls or foundations. Sometimes, materials made from natural substances like rock – granite countertops, for instance – may give off elevated levels of radon.
You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. But it could kill you.
It really does sound like a horror movie, doesn’t it?
Fortunately, you don’t have to sit helplessly and wonder if the Creeping Terror is invading your house. You can buy a do-it-yourself radon testing kit from the hardware store, or order one through the mail. The EPA recommends that all homes be tested below the 3rd floor – even newer homes that may have been built “radon-resistant.” Here's the EPA's handy guide on do-it-yourself radon testing.
You can also hire a professional contractor – the pro can check to see if you have elevated radon levels, and then take steps to fix the problem. (Fortunately, the problem can be fixed!) The contractor may seal cracks or gaps in your floors, or increase ventilation by adding pipes and fans. You can find a qualified contractor in your area here.
You can’t see it, you can’t smell it or taste it – but you can fight it.
Suddenly, that silent menace seems a lot less scary.