Radon: The invisible Kansas killer

WICHITA, Kansas – When you buy or build a new house, you expect it to be safe, but some Kansans are slowly being poisoned by a gas seeping into their homes.

Radon comes from decaying uranium in the soil and is found in all 50 states. Outside, the radioactive gas dissipates into the air and poses no health threat, but inside a home, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

WEB EXTRA | Look up radon levels for your county and get a test kit

Beth Anderson, a Wichita teacher, was just 54 years old when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Radon Map
Click here to look up levels for your county and get contact information to get your own radon test.

“And she didn’t smoke, her friends didn’t smoke, and of course, she wasn’t in a smoking environment,” said Margaret Anderson, Beth’s mother.

“That’s what the doctor said right off, ‘Well, it’s probably radon,’” added Don Anderson, Beth’s father.

A test of Beth’s home confirmed high radon levels. For 20 years, she’d been breathing poisonous gas and never knew it. Radon has no color, taste or odor.

“We can’t perceive any aspect of radon, its presence, the amount, its effects on us,” said Bruce Snead of the Kansas Radon Program at KSU.

Even though radon is also found in well water and the granite used in kitchen countertops, Snead says in Kansas, only the radon in the ground is concentrated enough to harm us, when seeping inside homes through cracks in the foundation.

It’s estimated one in four Kansas homes has high radon levels, yet most are never tested.

MITIGATING THE RISKS

There is no requirement anywhere in the United States that a test be done,” said Snead. “It’s common. It’s recommended that all homes be tested. The Surgeon General’s recommended that all homes be tested.”

A professional radon contractor charges about $125, but a do-it-yourself test is only $10. So why doesn’t Kansas require it for home sales?

“Getting anything through the legislature is a huge job,” said Snead, shaking his head.

Especially when many realtors and builders, like Wess Galyon, believe radon is not a danger everywhere.

“By and large, it’s just not viewed as a big issue,” said Galyon, President of the Wichita Area Builders Association.

He points to a map of average radon levels in Kansas. The majority of counties test in the unsafe zone, four picocuries per liter (pCi/L) of air or more. Sedgwick County and other counties test in the borderline, but acceptable range.

Click for Radon Control Methods
Click for Radon Control Methods

“The fact is, it doesn’t justify doing it on every home and spending that kind of money when it’s so isolated when it does show up,” said Galyon.

Four cities in Kansas do require new homes to have radon venting systems. It adds up to $500 to the price of construction in Salina, Manhattan, Topeka and Lawrence. But in Wichita?

“It just doesn’t make sense to add that much cost, and it’s not that difficult to address after the fact,” Galyon emphasized.

If high radon levels are found, contractors can vent the radon out of the home by installing a suction system, often to existing sump pumps, and sealing any cracks in the foundation. Within 24 hours, radon levels are usually in the safe range.

“Typical radon reduction range is from $800 to $2,500,” said Brian May, owner of Radon Services of Kansas.

Homeowners don’t need to remove their granite countertops. Environmental and industry experts agree that any traces of radon there would be too minute to pose a health threat.

“So I can understand the concern, but testing is what we recommend people do, if they are concerned,” said Gary Bond of Top Master, Inc.

You should fix your home if your radon level is 4 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L, or higher. — EPA.gov

To show how easy it is to test a home for radon, Bruce Snead pops open a do-it-yourself kit. He inserts a foam plug in the charcoal packet to catch any dust, and hangs it somewhere on the lowest level of the house, away from any drafts. After three to seven days, Snead throws away the foam plug, seals the envelope, records the date and time the test was conducted, and mails it to the lab for analysis. Results are available online in a few days, and a lab report is mailed to the home.

Radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year (source: EPA.gov)
Radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year (source: EPA.gov)

Once Beth Anderson knew her home had high radon levels, she installed a venting system, but it was too late. She died within nine months.

“We would like to keep that from happening to other people,” said Don Anderson.

The grieving parents now hand out cards, urging people to test their homes for radon and protect what they hold dear.

USING TESTING DEVICES PROPERLY FOR RELIABLE RESULTS (source: EPA)

  • Close your windows and outside doors at least 12 hours before beginning the test;
  • Do not conduct short-term tests lasting less than four days during severe storms or periods of high winds;
  • Follow the testing instructions and record the start time and date;
  • Place the test device at least 20 inches above the floor in a location where it will not be disturbed and where it will be away from drafts, high heat, high humidity, and exterior walls;
  • Leave the test kit in place for as long as the test instructions say; and
  • Once the test is finished, record the stop time and date, reseal the package, and return it immediately to the lab specified on the package for analysis.

SOURCES OF MORE INFORMATION

DATABASE | Look up radon levels and get a radon testing kit

RELATED LINKS

VIDEO | The KDHE Dispatch – Radon and Lung Cancer

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