The health risk from radon gas is possibly the hottest environmental topic of the '90s, but doctors and public-health officials keep underestimating the public's apathy concerning the threat.

"We've been unable to convince the public that radon is a health risk," said William R. Hendee, vice president of the American Medical Association's Group on Science and Technology. He said health-care personnel have a responsibility to communicate the radon problem to the public.Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. It comes from a breakdown of radium in the soil and easily can become trapped indoors, particularly in basements. It poses a risk for lung cancer.

Hendee was one of several experts speaking at the "Indoor Air & Radon: Reducing Health Risks" forum on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

"The bulk of the radon that enters homes enters through cracks and joints," said Victor E. Archer of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, at the University of Utah. He explained that the gap between the footings and concrete floors is one of the main places radon enters a home.

"Radon is too easy to ignore," EPA representative Jed Harrison said. "It's up to the medical fields and community leaders to overcome the public's apathy."

What homes are most likely to be at risk?

"There's no way to predict who will have an individual problem," said John Hultquist, environmental health scientist from the Utah Bureau of Radiation Control.Several risk factors were identified. Archer said soil composed of sand and gravel allows more radon gas into a house than clay soil. He also said a high water table would prevent some radon from entering a house by taking up potential air space.

Hultquist said the farther east a house sits along the Wasatch Front, generally the greater the risk of radon entering the home, because the gas isn't as concentrated in the sediments on the valley floor as much as near the Wasatch Fault.

Residential ventilation systems can either be a plus or minus where radon is concerned, forum participants said, though residents living on a third-floor level or higher are not at risk.

Hultquist said approximately 200 homes are involved in a residential radon gas study just being completed in Sandy and Provo. Another study that may begin later this year will examine residential radon levels in St. George, Sevier County and the Huntsville area of Weber County.

Some 53 schools in seven Utah school districts also are being tested. Most of the private, short-term testing in Utah and elsewhere in the United States involves real estate transactions.

Experts believe radon gas is at least as dangerous as passive smoking and it can make lung cancer appear earlier in smokers. Utah experts are concerned about how Utah's low smoking rate might affect a radon study.

"Every health organization agrees that radon gas is a serious problem and is responsible for thousands of deaths each year," Harrison said, noting that radon is the most important issue that the EPA deals with today.

Utah hasn't been studied by the EPA for radon yet, but Harrison stresses that no one area is safe from the threat and that radon can be found when you look for it.



Radon risk factors

Higher chance of radon problems:

- Sand or gravel soil

- East-side location

Lower risk of radon problems:

- Clay soil

- High water table

- Location on valley floor