kentucky voices

Radon gas a silent killer

March 22, 2014 

By John M. Shotwell

Real estate agent Eric Bumm deserves applause for producing a free pubic radon seminar Mar. 25 at the Beaumont clubhouse. Central Kentuckians are at high risk of exposure to radon gas, believed to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer, in large part because of the prevalence of limestone under our homes.

Yes, the same limestone that furnishes calcium carbonate which hardens the bones of Thoroughbred race horses, also contains small amounts of uranium. The toxic radioactive uranium in limestone oxidizes easily, degrading into lead, emitting the deadly radon.

More than half the surface rock in Kentucky is limestone. The karst systems tha1t result in sinkholes also cause large variations in radon levels. The gas eventually seeps into houses. Residents are unaware of the odorless, tasteless toxic substance they absorb.

Several years ago, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory declaring radon a "national health problem," causing thousands of deaths annually.

That so many Kentuckians are oblivious to the dangers of radon is astounding considering how long the risks have been known. Although radon was discovered in 1900, the effects of prolonged exposure had been suspected and noted 300 years earlier among underground miners who developed lung cancer.

After a close friend, a nonsmoker, died from lung cancer likely caused by radon, I decided to have my home tested. I learned that it contained many times the "picocuries" (the unit of measure, named for Marie Curie) above the level considered at risk. Radon testing is simple and inexpensive. Steps should be taken now to mitigate the danger:

■ Test your home. Most county health departments provide free kits. Inexpensive kits are available at home improvement stores.

■ If the radon level in your home exceeds safe standards, have the house professionally examined by a reputable mitigation service.

■ If the test shows dangerous radiation levels, shop for a radon-reduction system, which usually consists of fans, pumps or a combination.

■ Avoid contractors who offer a one-size-fits-all solution. These outfits generally pitch special fixed prices without even seeing the structures. Their systems may satisfy real estate requirements but may not make the home much safer. Effective mitigation systems are tailored to a house's structure and foundation.

A few years ago, the Food and Drug Administration launched a controversial anti-smoking campaign that incorporated shocking images such as rotting teeth and gums, smoke billowing from the tracheotomy hole in a man's neck and the sewn-up corpse of a smoker. Perhaps such scare tactics need to be employed to shake homeowners out of their sense of complacency about the health risks of dangerous, invisible radon.

Money spent mitigating radon in your home is a prudent investment in your family's health, as well as a selling point when you put your home on the market.

John M. Shotwell teaches journalism and telecommunications at the University of Kentucky

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