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Radon in Utah homes can lead to lung cancer diagnosis

The gas is the second leading cause of the disease nationwide

Published: Monday, Dec. 5 2011 6:07 p.m. MST

In a basement stocked with emergency food supplies Charlie McQuinn, 71, shows the radon mitigation system in his Cottonwood Heights home on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Charlie McQuinn never smoked a single day in his life. Yet, he wound up with lung cancer.

The culprit, he and his doctors believe, is radon gas.

Harmful levels of the radioactive vapor — more than double the acceptable standard — were detected in the basement of his home earlier this year. The 71-year-old has since had half of one of his lungs removed and is now cancer-free. But he says he wouldn't wish lung cancer on anyone, and he advises everyone he knows to test their homes for radon.

"I had heard about it before, but I never thought much about it," McQuinn said. "People here spend a lot of time and effort focusing on preparedness and having food and water storage, but as a community, we haven't focused on radon, which might end up being the biggest disaster of all."

Potentially harmful levels of the radioactive vapor is present in at least one of three homes in the state of Utah and about 17,500 homes have been professionally tested so far. Radon gas is the second-leading cause of lung cancer nationwide, accounting for an estimated 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to the American Lung Association. Nonsmokers make up 2,900 of those who die each year from lung cancer.

As such, officials say that breathing radon over prolonged periods of time can present a significant risk to families.

"Because you can't smell it, see it or taste it, people don't think it exists, but it is there and it can be deadly," said Christine Keyser, indoor radon coordinator with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Radiation Control.

The gas develops from the breakdown of uranium and other minerals in soils, rock and water sources, and negative pressure draws it into homes, according to Keyser. Exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as dryer vents, actually help to suck the vapors into a home through cracks and gaps in the foundation, rather than just expel bad air as one would suppose.

"Radon is no respecter of homes, and some homes suck (in) more than other homes," Keyser said.

Newer air conditioning units also impact radon levels, as older, evaporative coolers created a positive pressure environment within the home, circulating air better, Keyser said, adding that, "people don't air out their homes like they used to."

A statewide map of tested radon levels shows areas of concern all over the state, specifically along the mountain ranges, where granite and uranium deposits are higher, said state epidemiologist Dr. Robert Rolfs.

While radon presents a significant risk, Rolfs said smoking still remains the No. 1 cause of lung cancer in the state and the nation and, like radon, is an entirely preventable cause.

Smoking leads to 90 percent of all lung cancer cases, resulting in more than 160,000 deaths in the U.S. annually, and radon, as well as other environmental exposures, make up for the rest.

Utah's lung cancer rate — 27.8 per 100,000 population — is half that of the national rate of 59.3, but Rolfs said it is still something health officials are concerned about as it is one of the more deadly forms of cancer.

Even for Utahns who don't smoke, he said the radon issue is widespread enough that every home should be tested.

"The simple message is that people should do what they can to make a difference in their health," Rolfs said. Obtaining a radon reading of a home, he added, is "probably below other things, such as other health screenings, in order of importance."

Travis Jewell, owner of RadoVent, a local radon mitigation service company, said a ventilation system can be easily installed to draw the vapors from below a home and exhaust them into the atmosphere above, where they are diluted to the point of being safe enough to breathe.

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