Lexington woman with radon-linked lung cancer is advocate for testing

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comApril 15, 2013 

  • FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

    What is radon? It's a naturally occurring gas from the breakdown—or the radioactive decay—of uranium.

    How does it get in a home? Radon gas can seep through cracks in buildings, construction joints, service pipes and gaps inside walls.

    Why worry? Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, responsible for more than 20,000 deaths a year.

    Is it in Kentucky homes? More than 40 percent of homes tested in Kentucky have higher than acceptable levels of radon. The presence of limestone in the soil contributes to high levels of radon.

    How do you test? Test strips are placed in the home for 30 to 90 days and are then mailed to a lab.

    What's an acceptable level? Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air, or pCi/L. Between 2 and 4 pCi/L is considered outside of normal levels, and abatement could be considered.

    How do you fix it? A pipe and vent system is created to draw the radon out of the home.

    How do you pick someone to do the job? Find a certified installer through the National Radon Proficiency Program, 1-800-269-4174, (828) 890-4117 or NRPP.info, or the National Radon Safety Board, (866) 329-3474 or NRSB.org.

  • RADON TESTING

    The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department's Division of Environmental Health has free radon testing kits available 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. at 804 Newtown Circle. Call (859) 231-9791.

    Kentucky homeowners may also contact the Kentucky Radon Program at (502) 564-4856 or go to 1.usa.gov/Trv87R

    Radon tests also are available at home-improvement stores.

She knew better and did nothing.

For Lois Turner Dees, that's the most frustrating part of knowing that radon in her home contributed to her diagnosis of lung cancer.

She knew radon was a dangerous, known cause of lung cancer and prevalent in Central Kentucky, but she never had her home tested.

"It just wasn't a high priority," said Dees. "We knew you could have radon tests; we just didn't get it done."

When she says "we" she means herself and her late husband, Larry Turner, who bought the house in 2000. She still lives there.

Some remember Dees, who remarried shortly after her cancer diagnosis in 2011, as one of the public faces of grief after the crash of Comair flight 5191 in August 2006, in which her husband and 48 others were killed. Turner's was the first public funeral, drawing 1,200 people from among the many who knew him from his job as head of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Office.

Dees became involved in the creation of the commemorative sculpture that was unveiled on the fifth anniversary of the crash.

But it was Turner's crusade to let the public know about his battle with male breast cancer that inspired Dees to talk about her illness with the aim of helping others.

"He felt that you do your best and you lean on your faith," she said.

Dees' test of faith began with a persistent cough in the fall of 2011. After going through the typical remedies, such as, antibiotics she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

"It was terrifying," she said, "absolutely terrifying."

Dr. Susan Arnold, who is treating Dees at the Markey Cancer Center, said because Dees had never smoked, radon exposure was a likely cause of her cancer. Sure enough, a test of her home revealed that the level was nearly eight times the acceptable safe levels.

It was devastating for many reasons. After years of grief, Dees had just started dating Kerwin Dees, whose first wife had died of lung cancer. She said she called him to tell him of her diagnosis and "basically gave him a free pass" if he wanted to end the relationship. They were married last summer.

It was also frustrating because "as an educated, informed woman," she knew about radon testing and had never taken action. Her lack of action had exposed not only herself but her three children.

"This is something that is just so preventable," she said.

It's easy to let radon testing slide, Arnold said. She lived in her home for 10 years before she got a test. She found unacceptable levels and hired a company to perform the relatively simple fix.

Plus, she said, even though there are "pretty well-established links between radon and multiple forms of cancer," many people don't understand the risk. Every home should be tested.

"We recommend that everybody get tested because you just don't know," she said.

Arnold is optimistic about Dees' recovery.

"She has certainly had a lot of cancer treatment, but she is a fighter," she said. "She also has a lot of support."

Dees said she hopes the many people who know her and her family will heed her warning and take action. She is nearing the end of her second round of chemo. The hair her doctor predicted would fall out weeks ago is thinning but hanging on. She has felt well enough to return to work as a middle school math teacher at Lexington Christian Academy.

But she has regrets. Because of their exposure in the family home, her grown children, Clay, Amy and Molly, are at a greater risk for developing cancer. They will need annual X-rays for the rest of their lives to check for signs of the disease.

She said she's heard people say they haven't tested their homes because they can't afford the cost of the fix, which could be between $1,200 and $2,500, according to Clay Hardwick, who coordinates the state radon program.

"How much does cancer treatment cost?" she asked. "It's a whole lot more than that."

Arnold has heard similar arguments but hopes Dees' pleas will resonate especially for parents with small children, who have the most fragile and vulnerable lungs.

"If people can't do it for themselves, they should do it for their kids," she said. "To me it's kind of a no-brainer."


RADON TESTING

The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department's Division of Environmental Health has free radon testing kits available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at 804 Newtown Circle. Call (859) 231-9791.

Kentucky homeowners also may contact the Kentucky Radon Program at (502) 564-4856 or go to 1.usa.gov/Trv87R

Radon test kits also are available at home-improvement stores.


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What is radon? It's a naturally occurring gas from the breakdown—or the radioactive decay—of uranium.

How does it get in a home? Radon gas can seep through cracks in buildings, construction joints, service pipes and gaps inside walls.

Why worry? Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, responsible for more than 20,000 deaths a year.

Is it in Kentucky homes? More than 40 percent of the homes tested in Kentucky have higher-than-acceptable levels of radon. The presence of limestone in the soil contributes to high levels of radon.

How do you test? Test strips are placed in the home for 30 to 90 days and are then mailed to a lab.

What's an acceptable level? Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air, or pCi/L. Between 2 and 4 pCi/L is considered outside of normal levels, and abatement could be considered.

How do you fix it? A pipe and vent system is created to draw the radon out of the home.

How do you pick someone to do the job? Find a certified installer through the National Radon Proficiency Program, 1-800-269-4174 or (828) 890-4117, or NRPP.info, or the National Radon Safety Board, (866) 329-3474 or NRSB.org.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com. Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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