Radon exposure causes more deaths each year than drunk driving

January 3, 2013

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Athens, Ga. - Radon is tasteless, odorless and invisible, but the radioactive gas still kills more Americans every year than drunk driving-one reason why University of Georgia Cooperative Extension experts advise Georgians to test their homes. It is the most common cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and causes about 21,000 deaths a year.

Those statistics have left one Athens family wondering if radon contributed to the premature death of their 27-year-old daughter. They're urging other Georgia families to have their homes tested for the gas, which seeps up from the state's granite bedrock and may accumulate and reach unsafe levels in the home.

"Radon tests are very inexpensive, and it's no trouble whatsoever," said Ann Tackett, who lives in Athens and recently lost her daughter. "Just see if your house has radon. If it does, get it fixed."

Tackett's daughter died in late November after being diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 2011. She had never smoked.

January is National Radon Action month, and the Tacketts and University of Georgia Cooperative Extension home safety and public health educators are asking Georgians to minimize their families' exposure to the silent killer.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that seeps from the ground as uranium deposits decay. It is always in the ambient air, usually about 0.4 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. At that level, radon is not harmful, but over time the radioactive gas can become concentrated in the air inside homes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers levels of 4.0 pCi/L or more as high. The lower the radon level, the better.

In the last year of her life, Allison Tackett made it her mission to educate the public about the dangers of radon gas and what they can do to keep their families safe. Now her mother has taken over that task, making sure her neighbors have their homes tested and speaking out whenever and wherever she can.

"I'm going to try to fill those huge shoes," said Tackett, who had never heard of the dangers posed by household radon until one of her daughter's doctors suggested that she have the house tested.

Homes in every part of Georgia are at risk for radon infiltration, but the northern third of Georgia is where most of the high levels are found, said the UGA Extension Radon Education Program's Becky Chenhall. Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties have the highest average indoor radon levels, according to the EPA.

Radon testing is cheap and easy. Families can purchase a kit for $8 from their county Extension office or for $10 online at www.ugaradon.org. Test kits also may be purchased from local retailers. The cost for a kit from UGA includes the lab analysis and a follow up from a UGA radon educator if test results are high.

Test kit instructions should be followed exactly, but homeowners typically hang the carbon filled test canister in their house for between three to seven days before mailing it to a testing center.

The air inside the average home contains about 1.3 pCi/L of radon. Experts recommend mitigation, which involves installing a ventilation system, for any home that has 4 pCi/L or above.

Tests revealed the Tacketts were living with a radon level of 3.1 pCi/L in their home.

The Tacketts' story is not unusual, Chenhall said. In the decade since she started doing radon awareness work, she has met several families who didn't know their homes were unsafe until a loved one was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Other families are worried they won't have the money to install the needed ventilation system if they find that their homes have high levels of radon, she said.

"In reality, the improvements are not that expensive given that the device has the potential to save lives, and if you need a radon mitigation system, the first step involves planning and saving," Chenhall said.

In the first three quarters of 2012, the UGA Radon Education Program distributed 1,649 radon test kits. Almost 380 families found unsafe radon levels in their homes, and about half were able to get the problem fixed in 2012.

For more information or a video tutorial on how to conduct a radon test, see the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences Extension's website at www.ugaradon.org. More information about radon also is available at the EPA website www.epa.gov/radon/.

 

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