Minnesota is a hotbed for radioactive gas radon

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2013 - 1:56 PM

Officials are alarmed at the lack of awareness about the invisible gas that invades homes.

Wes and Mary Anne Bry moved their three daughters to Lakeville 18 years ago, thinking their new house on a quiet cul-de-sac would be a dream home.

But last September, just days before their 30th wedding anniversary, Wes was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and he began to wonder.

Wes, who is 60, had never smoked, and an Internet search led him to radon gas, the nation's second-leading cause of lung cancer. The Brys bought a test kit at a local hardware store, placed it in their basement -- and learned that the house where they have lived for nearly two decades has radon levels roughly three times above the federal safety level.

"I alerted all my neighbors," said Mary Anne. "Anybody I know ... I say: 'You should be doing this test.'"

State health officials are equally alarmed that, despite years of effort by their colleagues, thousands of other Minnesotans remain unaware of the health risks from the odorless, colorless gas.

More than 40 percent of Minnesota home radon tests conducted in the past 13 years show unsafe levels of the radioactive gas, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state records. Yet Minnesota has no mandatory radon testing of homes, schools or day care centers; no requirement that homeowners test for radon before selling a house; and weaker real estate disclosure rules than some leading states.

Last month, the Minnesota Department of Health launched a new effort to reach the thousands of families who, like the Brys, could be caught unaware. Health officials have also begun reviewing state radon standards, particularly a 2009 building code change that was supposed to mitigate radon in new home construction. State researchers estimate that up to one-third of new homes may have unsafe radon levels, and they are conducting a study this year to see if the new construction standards are working.

Efforts underfunded

"The bottom line is if you live in Minnesota you are at risk for radon," said Andrew Gilbert, outreach coordinator for the Health Department's radon program. A radon check should be automatic when someone buys a house, he said.

"You're going down a checklist of things to take care of. This is just one more thing that you can do to protect yourself."

William Angell, a University of Minnesota professor who has studied radon policy, says that nearly three decades of public health efforts have suffered from chronic underfunding, and another group of researchers this year called for a new national strategy to combat the problem.

"If you have an airliner that crashes, you're going to have public reactions and government investigations,'' Angell said. "That doesn't happen with lung cancer deaths.''

Some 21,000 people nationwide die each year from lung cancer caused by radon exposure, according to estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas created when radioactive uranium breaks down in the soil and then seeps into a home through cracks or other openings in the foundation. The gas is common in the Midwest because of regional geology and is more concentrated in basements and lower levels; the only way to detect its presence is through a test, usually at a cost of about $15 to $20 per kit. Radon is measured in picocuries per liter; a test score above 4.0 is considered a significant health risk that the EPA says should be mitigated from a home.

Significant swaths of Minnesota show up on the EPA's red zone list -- areas with the greatest potential for unsafe radon levels.

The Star Tribune's analysis of 121,000 test results over the past 13 years found that more than four in 10 were above the EPA's "action'' level. Some 42 Minnesota counties, mostly in the south and west, had at least 50 percent of their tests above the action level. Even in counties with lower concentrations, individual homes can contain high radon.

Dakota County, where the Brys live, is in a red zone. The tests of their home ranged roughly from 10 to 13.8 picocuries. After hearing about the Brys' tests, two neighbors tested their homes: One found results above the safe level and has already installed a mitigation system.

Wes Bry recognizes the challenges ahead with his cancer, but has responded well to treatment. His genetic makeup allows him to take oral chemotherapy pills and avoid more invasive chemo treatments. He says he will never know what caused his cancer, but he wishes he had known about the risks of radon well before he was diagnosed.

"Wouldn't it have been nice to be more aware of this, even a decade ago?" he said. "What 10 years could have done. That's the past and now we'll look at the future. We might be able to alter other people's futures."

Now he and Mary Anne worry about the rest of their family. Two of their daughters lived in the basement at various points. The family went through an anxious period after getting the test results.

"Sometimes I tell Wes we should all pack up and move into a hotel," Mary nne said.

Last month, a mitigation team installed a removal system, which cost about $1,300. A subsequent test showed levels at 0.7 picocuries, well below the national average indoor level of 1.3.

"It's wonderful," Mary Anne said. "Wouldn't you feel the same way?"

Pat Brennan, the installer with Radon Removal Inc., said that even today many customers find it hard to believe they have radon.

"It's becoming less of a surprise, but it's still generally a surprise," he said. "Can't see it, can't smell it, can't taste it."

The curious case of a Pennsylvania nuclear plant worker helped push radon into the national consciousness in the mid-1980s. Even though the plant had not opened, radiation detectors at the exit went off every time he left work. He eventually determined that he was carrying radiation from home; when he tested his house, radon levels were off the charts.

The case drew national attention and caught the eye of Washington, along with research linking radon to lung cancer. In 1988, Congress passed the Indoor Radon Abatement Act, which authorized the EPA to spend millions of dollars in grants to educate the public and conduct abatement programs.

Over time, however, federal and state support have declined, and public communication efforts have fallen short, according to the U's Angell, who directs the Midwest Universities Radon Consortium and works with the World Health Organization on radon.

Angell said public understanding does not stand up to the risk posed by radon. It's easy for people to forget a gas that occurs naturally, falls outside traditional regulatory channels, and takes its victims in relative anonymity.

"The lack of awareness about radon as a serious health risk is a challenge that has been with us for decades," Angell said.

Failures in educating the public have led some researchers to propose a new approach. Cancer risk from radon is much higher among smokers; so limited funding available to alert the public should target smokers to encourage them to test their homes for radon and quit smoking, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.

"The strategy of trying to educate everyone about radon is not working," said study co-author Paula Lantz, a Minnesota native who chairs the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University. "In a perfect world I'd be for universal testing, but in this case it's not working."

An activist is born

Gloria Linnertz and her husband, Joe, were among the millions of people who failed to get the message. Joe Linnertz had not smoked for nearly three decades, but he died in February 2006, just six weeks after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

His wife soon learned about the links between radon and lung cancer and decided to test the home where they had lived for 18 years in Waterloo, Ill. The result came back at more than four times above the EPA action level.

"I was very upset," she said. "I wanted to tear the house down."

Instead, she had a radon mitigation system installed and became a radon activist as one of the leaders of the group CanSar-Cancer Survivors Against Radon. She helped Illinois adopt stronger radon disclosure laws for real estate transactions, which has helped educate buyers and led to more testing. The state just this year started requiring day cares to test for radon.

Linnertz has carried the message to other states -- driven, in part, by what she learned in those weeks after her husband died.

"Why didn't I know?" she said. "Why doesn't every person in our nation know?''

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

Data editor Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.

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