I never worried about the air we breath down in our basement bedroom in the new house we bought in Salt Lake City. That is, until I learned that me, my wife, and my dog are all breathing in unsafe levels of radioactive radon gas.
Radon comes from decaying uranium that occurs naturally in rocks and soil underground, and then percolates up into homes and buildings. It has always seeped into the atmosphere at low levels, and was known to endanger miners working underground. But our modern airtight homes can also trap the radioactive gas, letting it build up to toxic and cancer-causing levels if we're exposed for too long.
"We're not even aware of it. Because you can't see it, you can't taste it, you can't smell it. But it does exist," says Christine Keyser, who is with the Utah division of radiation control.
She says radon is to blame for roughly 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year. Yet, she says Utah lags behind other states in helping people understand the risks.
"My worst phone call is when somebody calls and says we're just coming from the doctor and my wife has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. And we've never smoked a day in our life. The doctor said, go get your house tested for radon, because radon is the number one cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers," says Keyser. "So they call my office saying, how we do we test our home for radon, and why hasn't someone told me about this?"
Many Utah Homes Have Unsafe Levels of Radon
I recently learned that one in three Utah homes test for unsafe levels of radon. Utah is one of many states with dangerous radon levels. So I tested my own home using some inexpensive test kits. After waiting a few days for the test results, I found that our home has 9.0 picocuries per liter of radon. That's more than double the level at which the environmental protection agency says to take action. But Keyser says, there really is no safe level.
"That's the thing. EPA set 4.0 picocuries as the action level. Take action. The World Health Organization has made the action level at 2.7," says Keyser. "So the point is, there is no safe level. You just have to ask yourself, how much radiation do I want? And some people are high risk takers, and some aren't."
Despite some restless nights in my house, there is good news – the problem can be fixed. We could hire a certified contractor to install a vent pipe system that would pull the radon from underneath the house and vent it to the outside. Still, this would cost around $1,400 – the price of a new refrigerator or water heater.
Radon Can Increase the Risk of Lung Cancer
Like any homeowner, I do wonder if the risk is really worth the cost.
To learn more about the radon hazard, I met Dr. Wallace Akerley, an oncologist at the Hunstsman Cancer Institute, who specializes in lung cancer.
"It grows silently. You can't tell that it's there - very different from other cancers," says Akerley. "If I've got a big lump on my forehead, people will see it and say something about it. My lung doesn't really have pain fibers, so it can sit in my lung and grow. It's not until it gets big enough that it bothers a breathing tube, or the periphery of the lung where there's pain fibers that you actually feel it." He adds, "So people have these lung cancers for a number of years before they actually identify them."
The risk of dying from radon is greater than the risk of dying in a fire, or from a drunk driver, or from drowning. Akerley says it's not the dose of radon radiation, but the long-term exposure that creates the risk of cancer. He says radon gets ignored because there is no immediate victim.
"It's just not that dramatic of an event," says Akerley. "If someone dies of carbon monoxide poisoning in their house, it makes the media. If 20,000 people develop lung cancer, secondary to radon, it didn't happen at that moment. It happened over the past decade."
In Utah, cancer researchers are just beginning to try to distinguish cancerous mutations in lungs that stem from radon, as opposed to smoking or other reasons. Akerley says studying things like genealogy, smoking history, and past radon exposure could help us to learn who is more at risk of lung cancer from radon.
Still, general ignorance remains the biggest problem for Utahns. While laws require disclosure about hazardous mold or lead paint for new homebuyers, Utahns receive no such warnings about radon as they do in other states. One day, this may change. This year state lawmakers will consider new legislation to make radon disclosure more public.
In the meantime, Christine Keyser says the Utah division of radiation control does offer $7 test kits to everyone.
"So, we're hoping that people will test, and be aware of what they have in their home. Then what they do with it is totally up to them."
In my house, we are going to install a venting system. Once that's done, I'm sure I'll breathe a little easier, and maybe... sleep a little better.