As coordinator of the state's indoor radon program, I routinely deal with inquiries regarding health risks related to indoor radon exposure. My worst phone call is: "My wife/husband was just diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, we have never smoked a day in our lives and our doctor told us to test our home for radon. What is radon, and why hasn't someone told us about it?"
Currently, Utah lawmakers are addressing major air quality concerns. It is no secret: Utahns value their crystal clear mountain air. Most often, it is the outdoor pollution that captures the attention because nasty smog is visible.
Ironically, indoor pollution, which may have higher health risks, receives less attention because it is not detectable. If homeowners could see the polluted air in their bedrooms and cozy family rooms, they would be shocked. Even worse, if they or someone they loved were diagnosed with lung cancer, they would probably demand answers to how and why.
For approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year nationwide, radon gas has been found to be the insidious culprit.
Radon is an invisible, odorless, cancer-causing radioactive gas that seeps into homes and buildings through cracked walls and foundations. The U.S. Surgeon General has warned, "Indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the country. It's important to know that this threat is completely preventable. Radon can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established techniques."
Utah has been active in combating what public health experts call the "silent killer." The state indoor radon program was designed to educate the public, including homeowners, builders, realtors, and legislators, about the risks of radon. Sen. John L. Valentine, R-Orem, has met with me and other stakeholders several times to learn more about radon and discuss wide-ranging proposals to raise public awareness and encourage radon testing.
Data collected by the Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Radiation Control indicate that one out of three homes in Utah will have elevated radon levels, at or above EPA's action level of 4.0 picocuries per liter of air.
Although Utah recognizes the health risk of elevated indoor radon, other states are being more assertive in attacking the problem. Iowa has introduced a bill that would require radon testing in all schools. Nebraska has proposed legislation requiring all new construction be radon resistant. Illinois passed radon legislation last year requiring all new construction be radon resistant.
Along with local legislation, congressional legislation is also being monitored. States are hoping that a small EPA program that grants money for testing and awareness campaigns survives the budget debate. If states lose their funding, radon efforts in some states could vanish completely.
Yes, Utahns do have air-quality issues, but they're indoor as well as outdoor. Educating the public about the dangers of indoor radon gas is critical and must not be taken lightly. A more assertive educational program would include Realtors and home builders actively educating their potential buyers about the dangers of indoor radon gas and then giving them a choice to test an existing home or build radon resistant new construction.
If Utah adopted a more assertive radon program, home buyers would be better informed and I wouldn't hear: "Why didn't someone tell me about radon when I was purchasing or building this home?"
Christine Keyser is the radon program coordinator for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Radiation Control. She lives in Draper.