One-fourth of Utah homes have elevated levels of radon, a radioactive gas that increases the risk of developing lung cancer. And it has nothing to do with whether a home is old or new — two neighboring homes can have vastly different levels.

Radon is odorless, colorless and tasteless. It creates no acute symptoms. Its only known health effect is an increased risk of lung cancer.

The only way to tell for sure if it is present is to have a home tested. Now some Utah researchers are offering a limited number of free test kits to allow homeowners along the Wasatch Front to see if their homes are affected by the gas, which comes from the natural deterioration of uranium underground.

Interested homeowners can e-mail Radon Environmental Consultants at [email protected] or call 801-691-4044 to request a radon testing kit. They have offered 250 free test kits.

The Rocky Mountain region is rich with uranium-bearing granite. As it deteriorates, the radon gas comes to the surface, says Jeff Skinner, director of operations for the Provo-based nonprofit Radon Environmental Consultants.

The danger of radon seeping into houses grows in rainy and snowy months, because it's harder for the radon to rise, and it instead migrates toward heat in the form of warm homes. It gets in by the easiest path, which could be cracks or even walls of basements, crawl spaces and other openings. That's why testing is usually done in a house's lowest level, about two feet above the ground.

The risk is greatest for children, whose lungs are still developing. At high levels, radon gas poses a lung cancer risk similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It's also more dangerous for people who have pulmonary issues, including asthma, Skinner says. And smokers exposed to radon get a double-whammy in terms of risk.

Skinner also tells parents to strongly encourage testing of their children's schools. During a recent study in Denver, many schools were found to be "off the charts with high levels of radon and nobody ever knew it until we began testing them." Skinner said his company will test elementary, junior high and high schools if they are asked.

The company is offering the free testing kits in part to raise awareness of the need for testing, and it won't sell or market results. Participants in the study will get their results by e-mail or regular mail within a day after an independent lab in Fletcher, N.C., receives the test kit.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set 4 pCi (picoCuries) as the acceptable level, and Skinner "highly recommends" that anyone with a higher reading begin mitigation. His organization can recommend reputable mitigation companies and does not favor one over another. The Utah Division of Radiation Control also can provide a list of contractors who have passed the EPA Radon Contractor Proficiency Examination.

Inexpensive do-it-yourself radon test kits are available from many retailers. The state's radon information page — — says to be sure you get one that says it "Meets EPA Requirements" on the box. If you hire someone to do the test, make sure it's an EPA-qualified radon tester.

Any building can be repaired in a simple and not-too-costly process that involves venting the gas to the exterior with a low-energy fan that basically vacuums out the radon.

E-mail: [email protected]