2010-01-29 / Neighbors
Detecting a silent killer
Woman on personal mission to bring awareness to danger of radon
And the culprit—radon gas— crept through the floorboards of her Simi home.
Now, one of Brown’s daughters, Keri Nelson, has made it her mission to get the word out about the potentially lethal substance that could be lurking in other people’s homes.
When Brown was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in October 2008, her family was shocked. A nonsmoker and a marathon runner for 15 years, Brown was in the best shape of her life.
“We were devastated. We had just run a half-marathon three weeks before, and she ran it in her best time,” said Nelson, who still lives in Simi. “We thought, no way is this happening to her.”
After her mother’s death, Nelson dedicated herself to finding out why.
“I told my mom, ‘I will find out what happened, why you got so sick so fast,’” she said.
Countless hours of Internet searching later, Nelson came across an article about radon gas and its link to cancer. She’d never heard of radon, but after a little bit of research she said she knew that it was the link she’d been looking for.
She ordered a $5 radon test kit from the California Department of Public Health and performed the test on her mother’s Magnolia Street home before Christmas. A few days into the new year, Nelson received the results.
The lab found that Brown’s home, where she’d lived for more than 50 years, had a radon level of 21.1—more than five times greater than acceptable levels.
“My heart broke all over again,” she said. “I was devastated because it was preventable.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that, nationwide, 21,000 lung cancer deaths are caused by radon each year. In addition, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
Radon is a radioactive gas that is released during the natural decay of uranium, which is found in most rock and soil.
Because air pressure inside a home is usually lower than pressure in the soil around and under a house, radon is sucked into a home through even the smallest cracks or holes in the slab or foundation.
The gas can then become trapped, building up to unsafe levels.
The outdoor ambient radon level is about 1.4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), said Fred Ellrott, a certified radon mitigation contractor. Everyone is exposed to radon all the time, he said, but it isn’t a danger at these low levels.
According to the EPA, if a home’s radon level is below 2 pCi/ L, no action needs to be taken. If it is between 2 and under 4 pCi/L, the home should be retested every two years. A radon level of 4 pCi/ L or greater poses a health risk, and the home should be fixed.
Since radon is odorless, colorless and tasteless, it can only be detected by a test. And while the occurrence of radon is influenced primarily by geology, the problem varies house to house.
Even if a person lives in an area of low radon potential, such as Simi Valley, their house can have elevated radon while their neighbor’s house has none.
According to the state Department of Public Health, 433 homes in Simi had been tested as of August 2009, and of those, 18 had radon levels above 4 pCi/L. More than half of the homes tested were in the 93065 ZIP code.
“These may sound like small numbers, but when you’re talking lung cancer and lives, that’s high,” Nelson said.
The highest level of radon ever found in Simi was 44.1; Ellrott worked on the home in 2002.
Nelson said the couple who lived across the street from her mother both died from lung cancer over the past year and a half. Nelson has bought a kit to test the house.
Ellrott, who’s worked in the business for 20 years and serves all of California and Nevada, said the problem in Simi is “sporadic” and that even he was surprised that Brown’s house had high levels.
But he said that’s exactly why more testing is needed. And since California state law doesn’t require that radon tests be performed during real estate transactions, it comes down to personal responsibility and awareness.
“That’s the goal of the industry—to get every home tested” and cleared if need be, Ellrott said.
He was at Nelson’s mother’s house Tuesday morning to fix the problem. The cost of remediation depends on the type of construction and the size of the house, but it averages about $2,500, Ellrott said.
To get rid of the radon, the contractor installs a permanent active soil depressurization system that basically sucks the gases out from underneath the home and vents them into the atmosphere. It takes three to four days to bring the home to acceptable levels.
After growing up in the Magnolia Street home and staying there during her mother’s cancer battle, Nelson does worry about her own exposure and the thought keeps her up some nights. Though her chest X-ray came back clear, she said she’ll continue to get checked since lung cancer is slow-growing.
For Nelson, knowing that radon-induced lung cancer is easily preventable is bittersweet. January is National Radon Action Month, and Nelson hopes everyone will test their homes. She said doing it could be life-changing.
“By testing, you could save a life,” she said. “If I had an opportunity to test my mom’s home and have her with me, I’d do anything to do that.”
For more information or to order a test kit, visit www.cdph.ca.gov/healthinfo/environhealth/Pages/Radon.aspx.