AUGUSTA — Testing your home for radon — the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers — should be at the top of your to-do list this month, officials say.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared January National Radon Action Month.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas present in many homes, schools and buildings, yet few people know about the health risk or have tested for it. Most people associate lung cancer with smoking, but radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

Every year, radon-induced lung cancer kills more people than secondhand smoke, drunken driving, falls in the home, drowning or home fires.

The EPA estimates 21,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer caused by indoor radon exposure.

Bob Stilwell, section leader for Maine’s Radon Control Program, said about 160 Mainers die each year from lung cancer. This Cancer Registry includes both smokers and non-smokers in this group.

“We recommend that every building in Maine be tested for radon,” Stilwell said. “For most of the state, one in three buildings have high radon in the air. About half of Maine wells have high radon levels. At this point in time we don’t have maps based on radon data up on our website — we have several drafts that just haven’t been finalized. So we’re still using EPA’s map of radon zones for the whole country, county by county.”

Since radon is invisible and odorless, the only way to know if a home has dangerous levels of the gas is to conduct a radon test, he said.

The U.S. Surgeon General warns people about the risks of breathing indoor radon and recommends that all homes, both with and without basements, be tested.

The EPA estimates that as many as 8 million homes in the United States have dangerous levels of radon gas. The agency also predicts that if action is not taken to correct this problem, between 15,000 and 22,000 deaths will occur in 2012 from exposure to the gas, which is a health threat of epidemic proportions.

According to the EPA, radon causes more deaths each year in the U.S. than any other in-home hazard including fires and carbon monoxide.

The radioactive gas is emitted as uranium and found in the soil. As it decays it rises through the ground reaching the air above through cracks in foundations. It becomes trapped and builds up within the walls of a home, he said.

As part of L.D. 943, An Act To Reduce Lung Cancer in Maine, all rental property owners are required to have their rental property tested for radon by a Maine registered tester by March 1, 2014. Landlords are required by law to test all rental property.

Maine does not currently require radon testing during home sales, only requires that trained contractors do the test if it the home is for sale and a radon test (air or water) is requested.

Stilwell said the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council is offering a residential training course to help builders understand the codes for radon.

He said the state is sponsoring two complete series of those training courses offered at no cost to builders. The two remaining courses are from 7:30 a.m. until noon on Jan. 26 and Feb. 9 at the Ramada Inn in Saco. For more information contact the Indoor Air Quality Council at 622-8115 or go to maineindoorair.org.

“I’m also putting together a refresher training course for Maine radon professionals,” Stilwell said.

That course will be held between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Feb. 7 at Roosters in Augusta.

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]