Minimize your risk of radon exposure

Spotlight: Watching out for you

Gail Dobbs was diagnosed with lung cancer last year.

She didn’t smoke, and she didn’t have a family history of lung cancer.

What she had was prolonged exposure to high levels of the radioactive gas radon. It’s likely that thousands of other Georgians are being exposed, too.

“When you first get the diagnosis, it’s shocking,” said Dobbs, who is 59 and has lived in her Monroe home for 30 years. “You think ... where could it possibly come from?”

Radon is an invisible and odorless gas that breaks down from uranium, granite, shale and phosphate and seeps into soil and water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and causes up to 14 percent of all lung cancer deaths each year in the U.S. That’s about 22,000 people. Georgia leads the Southeast, according to the EPA, with an average of 822 deaths yearly.

The EPA has drawn a red splash on its Georgia radon map, showing that homes, schools and businesses in the metro area’s four core counties — DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb — are at highest risk for elevated radon levels. Radon testing advocates say living in a house with radon levels above the EPA’s suggested limit — 4.0 pCi / l (picu curies per liter of air) — is equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

A simple test can detect radon and fairly inexpensive fixes can ease the problem.

A few states, including Minnesota and West Virginia, require venting systems in new houses. Oregon’s Senate passed a bill last week to require radon-resistant construction for new houses and public buildings in areas with high levels, as well as notification to home buyers about radon.

But most, including Georgia, have no laws or regulations governing radon.

A venting system can be installed when a house is built for as little as $300 and can be a selling point, said Robert Stephenson of Southface, an Atlanta nonprofit group that promotes green construction and contracts with the state Department of Community Affairs to help convince builders to build houses that are more radon resistant.

Retrofitting a system can cost as much as $2,000.

Becky Chenhall, an agent in Walton County for the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension, said education is key for consumers and for elected officials who can adopt regulations.

“We have got to educate more and more county officials, and then take it to the state level from there, as our building codes and requirements are updated,” she said.

Chenhall is one of five “radon educators” in Georgia working on a federal grant to states.

“We have many people who don’t know anything about radon,” said Edda Cotto-Rivera, an extension agent in DeKalb County and radon educator. “People might say 822 [deaths] doesn’t sound like a lot but if one of them is your sister or your mother, that’s one too much.”

Extension offices sell a testing kit for $5, or one can be ordered online for $6.50.

In Gwinnett County, Peggy Wilson found a testing kit at a home show. She’s glad she did. She followed up with other tests, one of which came back at 5.1 pCi / l.

“I knew I didn’t want to continue to live in the house until it was mitigated,” the 75-year-old retired history teacher said. After about a year of tests and research, she hired a contractor to put in vent pipes in her three-bedroom ranch house that reduced the levels to 0.7 pCi / l in the her bedroom and 1.7 pCi / l in other areas of the house.

“I had a lot to learn,” she said. “And now I feel much more confident about the radon.”

In 2005, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a national health advisory about the dangers of indoor radon. The amount of radon seeping up from the earth and settling in houses varies by region. It’s affected by how houses are built and soil and weather conditions. Radon normally dissipates into the air, but houses can act like a vacuum, drawing the gas in through dirt floors, hollow-block walls, foundation cracks, and openings around floor drains and pipes.

Still, even just a few years ago, radon testing was nearly nonexistent, said Janey Lowe, an Atlanta realtor.

“Now, every inspector I use offers it,” said Lowe, who has been in the business for 22 years and works with Beacham & Co. Realtors. Last year, three out of about a dozen houses she sold had elevated radon levels.

Dobbs caught her cancer extremely early. Her doctor noticed a lung spot and sent her for more tests. Then, her oldest son did research on the Internet and pestered his parents to do radon testing.

A test showed 4.6 pCi / l of radon in the basement. Additional tests in her basement and upstairs bedroom showed higher levels.

“I never expected we would have radon,” Dobbs said. “My husband had talked about it. He’d seen it advertised. Check radon. And we never bothered to do anything about it. You think it’s not going to happen to you.”

Last June, she had surgery. Today, she is short of breath but her prognosis is good.

A contractor certified in radon mitigation has advised the Dobbs to use a plastic barrier in the basement to keep radon from seeping into the house. They plan to do more tests and determine if anything else is needed to lower the gas levels.

“I believe there’s a reason for everything,” Dobbs said. “You never want to say ‘why me?’ But maybe this happened to help other people. I caught mine early. They should just go ahead and get their [houses] checked.”

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A quick radon primer

● Radon is an invisible and odorless radioactive gas that is the second leading cause of lung caner after smoking.

● Radon occurs naturally in mines, caves and water treatment plants. Radon that creeps out of the ground can enter houses and other buildings through cracks in concrete, floor gaps, small holes in walls and drains.

● The gas is measured in picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) of air. A picoCurie is a measure of the radioactivity of about a quart of air. Outdoor air is about 0.4 pCi/L. The average indoor level is about 1.3 pCi/L. Because radon is a natural part of the environment, there’s no such thing as a “0” level. The U.S. EPA has established 4.0 pCi/L as the “action level” for radon in homes, schools and workplaces.

Check our sources

Environmental Protection Agency site for Georgia about radon, including the zone map showing where homes are more likely to have high levels.

An information guide to radon.

A list of resources, hotlines and information Web sites locally and nationally (.pdf)

● Cancer Survivors Against Radon [CanSAR]. Check out their Facebook page.