Silent but deadly killer can be found hiding inside homes

Published: Mar 20, 2006 1:00:00 AM
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Source: Opelika-Auburn News

**The Alabama Cooperative Extension System's Susan Roberts is quoted in this article.**

There's a killer on the loose breaking into homes across the country, but this intruder doesn't have to bother with entering through an unlocked door or breaking out a window to get in. The killer is radon, a silent but efficient killer that is the second-leading cause of lung cancer according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Radon is responsible for about 21,000 cancer deaths a year, a number second only to smoking-related cancer deaths at 160,000 a year. Of those 21,000 radon-related cancer deaths, 2,900 of them occur to people who have never smoked.

Radon is a colorless, odorless gas created naturally in the earth as a result of the decay of uranium. This gas can then seep into a home through small cracks and plumbing openings. As uranium decays, that radon gas can seep up through the soil into homes, said Susan Roberts, assistant director for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's Radon Education Program. The concentration and depth of the uranium in soil varies and it's possible for radon to migrate through certain soil types easier than others.

In Alabama some northern areas of the state have higher radon concentrations than southern areas of the state, though not alarmingly high, according to Roberts.

"We've placed most of our efforts in the 15 counties (Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Jackson, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Jefferson, Shelby, Talladega, Coosa, Calhoun and Cleburne) in the state that have the highest potential for radon problems," Roberts said. But Roberts says it's a good idea to test your home for radon wherever you live.

The EPA suggests testing homes for the presence of radon every couple of years or every time the homeowner remodels or if there is earthquake activity in the area in which they live. The state of Iowa has the greatest radon problem of all 50 states according to Roberts.

"Just like we take precautions and test for breast and colon cancer, testing a home for radon can be likened to an early detection test for lung cancer," Roberts said. "Lee County has a moderate potential for radon problems, but it's a good idea for homeowners to in Lee County to test their homes too, because that's the only way you'll know if you have a problem."

The lung cancer risk of prolonged exposure to radon is as great or greater than the risk of second-hand smoke, depending on the concentration of the toxin and the frequency and duration of exposure, Roberts said. Radon is measured in pico curies (pCi/l). The EPA has several radon regional training centers in place across the U.S. Alabama falls within Region 4, an area that covers southern states from Kentucky to Florida. Of the 287 homes in Lee County to be tested, 16 have indicated high radon levels according Roberts.

And while some people might associate radon with asbestos being found in homes that are older, that's really not a factor when testing for the presence of radon.

"Radon doesn't care if a building is old or new, expensive or not," Roberts said. "Radon can enter and stay in any building so it's an equal opportunity health risk. And the best way to determine if a home or other building is at risk for radon is through testing."

Radon testing kits can be purchased from hardware stores, catalogs and over the Internet.

A radon test lasts about three days and is as simple as unscrewing the cap on a vial and leaving it. The vials contain charcoal that absorbs radon. After three days the cap should placed back on the vial and then mailed off to a lab for testing where a solution is added to the charcoal that becomes reactive if significant amounts of radon are present in the samples.

Radon testing tip - Radon testing is a good idea for homeowners, but those who live in apartments should test their residences as well, especially those who live in basement or ground-level units.

How to get the kit -You can get your own radon testing kit by contacting your County Extension Office or in Auburn by going to 210 Extension Hall on Auburn University's campus or by mailing a check for $6.50 to the Alabama Radon Education Program, 210 Extension Hall, Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849.