Radon: A silent killerWORTHINGTON — It is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas and long-term exposure to it results in thousands of lung cancer deaths each year. In Minnesota, one in three homes is considered to have excessive levels of radon gas — and the southwestern region of the state has the highest potential due to the make-up of its soils.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — It is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gasm and long-term exposure to it results in thousands of lung cancer deaths each year. In Minnesota, one in three homes is considered to have excessive levels of radon gas — and the southwestern region of the state has the highest potential due to the make-up of its soils.
“Basically we find high levels of radon all over the state,” said Dale Dorschner, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Indoor Air Program.
Much of the soil in the Upper Midwest contains uranium and radium — minerals that continuously break down and emit radon gas. The gas can seep into homes through cracks in concrete slabs, pores and cracks in concrete blocks, floor-wall joints, exposed soil such as in a sump or crawl space, weeping drain tiles or through other means.
While a new law passed in 2007 requires the use of radon-resistant methods in new construction building practices, Dorschner said there is no legislation requiring homes be tested for radon gas levels. He strongly encourages all homeowners to test for radon levels.
A woman from Nobles County recently tested her family’s home for radon after a non-smoking friend was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors believe the cancer was caused by prolonged exposure to high levels of radon in the home.
“They tested and the radon was high in their home, so we decided we should test,” said the woman who requested the Daily Globe not use her name. Despite building a new home in the late 1990s, and being told by the contractor that steps were made during construction to reduce radon gas, the test came back showing excessive levels of the gas. A second test conducted this summer showed even higher levels than the first.
For the family, who uses their basement as a family room, computer room, exercise room and to host family and friends on occassion in their guest bedrooms, the fear that their child and themselves have been living with excessive levels of radon for more than a decade is enough to bring tears to a mother’s eyes.
“My first concern is (my child’s) health,” she said. “Of course, lung cancer is very deadly — a very small percentage live five years past diagnosis. We see firsthand what our friend is going through, and it’s not pretty.”
The woman has taken it upon herself to begin an email campaign to let people know about the dangers of radon gas.
“I just figured if our friends don’t know, our carpenters don’t know … somebody’s got to get the word out,” she said. “I’m not one to sit on this. I don’t want people to worry about this. What’s more important than your health? Nothing.
“The scary part of it is … it takes years to show up as cancer,” she added. “If it was like carbon monoxide and you didn’t feel good, there’s a big, red flag that goes up, but it’s lacking here.”
Testing for radon
There are a variety of test kits available for measuring the levels of radon in one’s home. Short-term tests take only three to seven days, while long-term tests, deemed to be the most accurate, can take anywhere from three months to a year.
“To do a short-term test is a good idea,” said Dorschner. “If levels come back between two and four (picoCuries per liter), people should consider taking a long-term test. That’s good for a couple of reasons — radon fluctuates quite a bit in the home. The winter time is going to give you the highest level of radon in the home.”
While testing can be done in the summer months, Dorschner cautioned that those tests are more prone to reading a false negative.
“(The short-term test) is a good screening tool, it’s cheap,” he said. “For us, if you get two short-term tests that are high, we’ll say go ahead and mitigate. If it’s in the lower ranges, we’d strongly encourage them to do a long-term test.”
The test for radon is quite simple to follow. People must purchase a test kit (available through radon sites on the Internet or perhaps at local hardware stores), and hang the test in the lowest lived-in level of the home, suspending it no less than three feet from the floor, and no less than three feet from the nearest wall or nearest window. Directions included with a kit explain that it can not be hung in the mechanical room, or in a room with high humidity, such as a bath or laundry room.
Once the test kit has been in place for the specified time frame, it must be mailed in to a certified lab for analysis (the directions are included in the kit). Results of the test are then returned to the homeowner.
“We encourage that all homeowners test their home for radon and to mitigate whenever the level is above four (picoCuries per liter), and consider mitigating if it’s above two,” Dorschner said. “There is no safe level of radon exposure. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, only behind smoking. Those that don’t smoke should take exposure to radon seriously.”
As for the local woman living with high levels of radon in the family’s home, she and her husband have taken several steps to reduce their exposure, including moving computers upstairs and spending much less time in their lower level family room. They are in the process of testing their home for radon for the third time, and if levels are still high, they have been assured by a certified radon mitigation installer that additional work will be done to bring the levels into an acceptable level.
“People need to take this seriously,” she said. “It’s not something to just … assume it’s all right — 15,000 to 22,000 people die each year due to radon-related exposure.”
For more information on radon, individuals can visit the Web sites listed below, or call the Minnesota Department of Health’s Indoor Air Program at 1-800-798-9050.
On the Net: