January is National Radon Action Month designated to increase awareness of the dangers of radon, which is especially relevant to Central Illinois where residents live with high levels of the carcinogenic gas, according to the U.S. Surgeon General and Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and scientists.
Illinois has some of the highest levels of radon in the country, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), and Peoria has the highest recorded readings of radon in Illinois, says Jim Emanuels of Peoria Radon Mitigation in rural Dunlap.
‘IEMA has reported Peoria has the No. 1 and No.4 rankings in the state,” he says. “One residence showed 1,307 and another place has a 257.”
Those numbers are picocuries per liter (pCi/L), a measurement of radioactivity, and mitigation is recommended when radon registers at 4 or above – about the same risk as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.
The average indoor radon level in the United States is about 1.3 pCi/L; the average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L.
There is no “safe” level of radium, but 4 pCi/L is a point where 7 of 1,000 non-smokers will develop lung cancer, according to Patrick Daniels, director of IEMA’s radon program. Daniels said radon “is the leading cause of death in private homes in the United States.”
However, “it is hard to be aware of it,” said Joseph Davis, member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, “since radon is a colorless, odorless gas [and] harmful even in small quantities over long periods of time.”
Indeed, spreading awareness isn’t easy, says Emanuels, 55, who launched his radon business 10 years ago after getting laid off as a sheet-metal worker, earning his certification and eventually hiring six employees.
In October, he arranged for radon test kits to be given to every fifth grader in Tazewell County, where children became engaged with the issue.
“We wanted to use firemen’s approach to smoke alarms, and it worked with the kids. Some got worried about siblings who slept in basement bedrooms,” he says. “But the news media wasn’t interested.”
No reporters showed up to cover the presentations.
Who knows if the press’ ignoring radon fosters public indifference or doubt or reflects the public’s indifference.
The Peoria City/County Health Department in November conceded that “many people still do not believe radon is a dangerous health threat or that it is even real.”
Lamar Harris of Express Home Inspections east of Hanna City said he’s found that “people poo-poo radon. They don’t understand it.”
A naturally occurring gas, radon is released into the environment when radium and uranium break down from deposits within rock.
“Illinois is in an iron belt that goes clear up into Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Harris says. “When it’s disturbed, it can break down and release radon. If it’s in a field, it disperses into the atmosphere; if it seeps into homes, it can remain there and people breathe it for a long time.”
“Radon is a long-term health risk,” Daniels said. “About 21,000 people in the United States – about 1,200 deaths in Illinois, annually die of radon-induced lung cancer.”
The No. 2 cause of lung cancer, it’s also linked to breast, uterine, pancreatic and other cancers.
“I’ve found levels from 0 to 185 – that was in a house in Chillicothe,” says Harris, 71, who’s worked as a certified expert since 2007.
He remembers hearing about radon in the mid-1950s from his dad, who was around nuclear weapons testing while serving in the military.
“I was 7 or 8 and he told me about radon, saying ‘nobody knows about it.’”
Since the 1950s, living spaces have changed. People used to leave windows open more and didn’t use basements much except for furnaces and laundry. With air-conditioning and windows and doors more tightly sealed, “you’ve vacuum-ized your house,” Harris says. “There’s less circulation.”
That means radon enters through basement or crawl-space floors and can’t escape, accumulating inside without adequate ventilation.
“As you breathe it, it begins to stick to your lungs,” Harris says.
Testing for radon and getting work done to lower radon levels is the “single most important thing people can do,” especially when doing new construction or additions, said Daniels, who’s been with the IEMA for about 18 years.
“The only way to know whether or not your home has a radon problem is to test it,”
Tests usually retail for about $15, and they’re widely available. (See sidebar below.)
Plus, Emanuels says, radon’s presence “has peaks and valleys. It’s important to test every two or three years. Things change. Radon’s affected by wind, storms, barometric pressure….”
Harris, who uses an electronic monitor that’s 98% accurate working with dozens of area real-estate firms, agrees. He says radon’s presence is affected by factors ranging from new construction nearby to minor earthquakes.
Meanwhile, government has tried to address the threat. In 1988, Congress passed the Indoor Radon Abatement Act, but it didn’t include regulatory power to the federal EPA, so states took the lead.
“Illinois leads the country in its [radon] regulations,” Emanuels says. “Other states are modeling laws after ours.”
Here, laws require home sellers to disclose known radon levels and landlords to disclose radon to tenants, and there are civil and criminal penalties for violations. However, the property owners aren’t mandated to test. As a result, Daniels said, only about 8% of Illinois homes have been tested. (The law does require testing in schools and day-care centers.)
As for IEMA, its goal is to control radon within 50 years, Emanuels says.
“There’s a three-part plan,” he says. “New construction taking radon into account, real-estate people disclosing test results, and awareness – which can encourage people to mitigate its presence.”
Mitigation usually involves installing a small plastic pipe with a quiet ventilating fan removing radon from the structure. The cost is about $1,000.
Elsewhere in Springfield, State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, in February introduced the Tenants Radon Protection Act (SB1559), which has five cosponsors. It would permit leases to be terminated for some radon hazards, among other provisions. Howevver, it’s been stalled in committee since April.
IEMA’s Daniels joked, “People say ‘Pat, if you get everybody to test, you’re going to be out of work.’ It’s going to be a long time before
I’m out of work.”
Unless people start paying attention.
Five myths discourage vigilance
It’s easy to ignore radon’s risk, according to physician and radiation expert Lawrence Dauer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, because the gas can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. But the threat is real despite related common myths.
Myth 1: The link between radon and cancer isn’t clear
“The link between radon and lung cancer has been firmly established over the past four decades from studies in people and in the lab,” Dr. Dauer said.
Myth 2: The risk of radon contributing to lung cancer isn’t significant
Scientific organizations believe that radon causes about 12% of lung cancers annually in the United States, almost 30,000 cases. Only smoking is a bigger factor.
Myth 3:Testing for radon is time-consuming and costly
The typical test is simple and inexpensive, Dauer says. An inexpensive retail kit “usually is about the size of a hockey puck. You open it like you would an air freshener, leave it for a few days in one of the lower-level rooms, and send it off to a lab.” Licensed testers use devices that are more accurate and charge about $100.
Myth 4: Reducing the radon level is expensive
“Radon mitigation” is easier than most people think. It diverts radon from beneath structures to the outside. Costing about $1,000, it’s increasingly available, said Dauer, adding, “A lot of companies are doing this now because of the EPA’s push to inform people about the potential risks of radon.”
Myth 5: Radon is only a problem in some areas
Dauer recommends that everyone take the risk seriously although radon levels are localized, depending on mineral deposits, soil composition, atmospheric conditions, home construction, etc. Homes must be tested, he said.
Radon test kits available
Test kits for individuals are readily available at retailers and also many Extension offices and county health departments. For example, the Peoria City/County Health Department has used a grant from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to provide test kits.
Call the Division of Nuclear Safety Radon Program of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) toll-free (800) 325-1245 for a list of laboratories that sell radon kits, or visit www.radon.illinois.gov. IEMA also lists licensed professionals who can test for you.