Study links radon and blood cancers in women

May 9, 2016

Credit NYS Department of Health

A new report by the American Cancer Society is warning women of a link between high levels of residential radon and the risk of blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma. This is the first population-based study to link the two, and comes from the same 19-year study group that found the link between smoking and cancer.

Dr. Lesley Coleman, Medical Officer for the ACS Eastern Region, said the most interesting finding of the study is the higher risk of blood cancer found for women compared to men. 

"People who were retired or indicted 'homemaker' as their occupation had a much higher relationship between the residential radon risk and the development of hematologic cancer," said Coleman. "It may be that women who spent more time at home had a higher risk of exposure than men, who aren't home as much."

For most people, radon is more often a risk in the home than at jobsites. Radon is already linked to lung cancer.

Coleman said the other reason for the difference in risk between women and men could be because men generally have a higher risk of contracting blood cancers to start with, so any higher risk may not be as obvious than for women.

Coleman said the results are reliable due to the large size of the study.

"This is the largest, long-term, follow-up cancer-related study in the world," she said. "This study has to do with people who registered and recorded their baseline information between 1982 to 1992 and were followed for 19 years. So it's many, many people followed for many, many years."

The study found more than 3,000 blood cancers among more than 140,000 participants - which translates to a 63 percent higher risk for those women living in high areas of radon concentration, compared to women in areas of low or medium radon concentrations.

Dr. Kirsten Moysich, Distinguished Professor of Oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, said the results are most impactful for people living in areas with high concentrations of radon, such as Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Iowa. She said in areas with medium concentrations of radon, the study found women had a 40 percent higher risk of blood cancers.

Both Moysich and Coleman agree Western New York is an area with low-to-medium concentrations of radon.

"The important takeaway from this study is that hematological cancers are very rare, and even a 60 percent increase in risk - that sounds dramatic, but it's a relative risk," she said. "When you translate that to actual, absolute risk, that would be very, very small."

In the overall population, Moysich said, a person's chance of getting a blood cancer is 2 percent over a lifetime.

Even so, she said, radon is radiation and radiation is a carcinogen, so radon levels should be monitored by professionals.

Coleman said New York has mapped its radon levels, but many states have not. She hoped the results will prompt all states to make finding out their radon levels a priority.