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Radon budget cuts will hurt Utah, state warns

Safety » State cites life-saving benefits of its education efforts.

First Published Jul 09 2012 08:00 am • Last Updated Jul 10 2012 11:33 pm

Utah’s ambitious radon-education program is threatened by federal budget cuts, radiation regulators warn.

"This is a vital program that has had such tremendous benefits to the public," said Rusty Lundberg, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control. "The ultimate question facing the program’s future may be: Without the funding, what happens now?"

At a glance

Lung-cancer survivor testifies

Elizabeth Hoffmann, president of Cancer Survivors Against Radon and a survivor of radon-induced lung cancer, addressed Congress on plans to cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s indoor-radon grant program for states. She said an American dies every 28 minutes from radon-induced lung cancer and that one in 15 homes contains toxic levels of radioactive radon gas. “Does this sound like a program that should be cut or eliminated?“ Hoffmann asked. “I sincerely hope not.” She also pointed to EPA estimates that 687 lives were saved through testing and mitigation last year.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives the state about $50,000 yearly to pay for testing and education programs that reach the construction industry, schools and the public.

But the federal grants to aid states with indoor radon programs were among $50 million in cuts proposed for EPA’s budget next year.

A U.S. House appropriations committee has proposed restoring the funding, said Gloria Linnertz, vice president of a national advocacy group, Cancer Survivors Against Radon. But it’s unclear whether the $8 million program will survive Congress’ budget-cutting mood this fall, she said.

"Of course, it’s not over with," Linnertz said of her group’s effort to get funding restored. "And it might not be over with until the election."

Christine Keyser, the state Department of Environmental Quality’s radon-program manager for the past four years, said EPA’s proposal to abolish indoor-radon grants was based on a false assumption that states can pick up the slack on their own.

"With limited outside resources to pay for this program," she said in the latest state department newsletter, "[Radiation Control] faces a tough challenge to come up with the funding."

Keyser said the program has made a big difference in Utah, where about a third of homes have radon levels above EPA’s safe-level limits:

• More people are doing tests in their homes; upward of 4,000 were conducted in the first three months of 2012 alone, compared with 4,236 in all of 2011 and 900 in 2005.

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• Last year, 755 homes had mitigation systems installed, up from 150 in 2005.

• Visits to the state’s radon information Web page rose to 54,154 last year, compared with 20,000 in past years.

Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that causes an estimated 20,000 lung-cancer deaths each year in the United States. A byproduct of radioactive decay, radon seeps into homes from underlying soil and builds up in living spaces, where unsuspecting families breathe the dangerous air.

Linnertz lost her husband, Joe, to lung cancer. She learned a few weeks after he died that radon levels in her home were four times higher than the EPA limit.

"People don’t realize the dangers of radon gas," said Linnertz, who lobbied Congress and wrote a letter about the budget cuts to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "That’s what we’re trying to do — educate people about the danger."

Linnertz also visited Utah in April for an EPA regional meeting with stakeholders and was impressed by Utah officials’ outreach efforts. "They seem to be doing a wonderful job," she said.

fahys@sltrib.comTwitter: @judyfutah

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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