We Utahns are fortunate to live in a state surrounded by natural splendor with peaks of granite, fertile flat lands and bountiful deserts, but within this natural beauty lurks a natural (but avoidable) killer, radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that is silent, colorless, tasteless, odorless and carcinogenic.
Radon comes from the natural decay of uranium that is found in nearly all rock and soil. According to the Utah Geological Survey, given the topography of our state, radon producing soils are prevalent in 80 percent of Utah. Where geological conditions are favorable, high indoor levels of radon gas are common. A statement substantiated in Utah by radon tests conducted over many years resulted in estimates that one third of all homes in our state are contaminated with radon levels higher than the EPA’s remediation level of 4.0 picocuries of radon per liter of air.
Radioactive radon gas decays to particles. When inhaled, these radioactive particles damage the DNA of the cells that line our lungs. Long-term exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer. Twenty thousand preventable deaths due to radon induced lung cancer occur annually in the USA. As an oncologist specializing in lung cancer, I see the ravages of exposure to radon every day.
So, we have high levels of radon in Utah and that’s a problem. Many Utahns have died from radon-induced lung cancer and many were never smokers, so that’s a bigger problem. But the biggest problem of all is that since elevated levels of radon can be fixed, those deaths could likely have been prevented had those who died been aware of, tested for and remediated radon.
Unfortunately, even though we live in a state with high levels of radon-producing soils, many Utahns are not aware of radon or its risks (surveys indicate that nearly 80 percent of Utahns are unaware of the dangers and that mitigation is possible) and most don’t test for radon (fewer than 12 percent of Utahns surveyed indicate they have tested for radon). Accordingly, high levels of radon in homes, workplaces, schools, etc., are not discovered or remediated and many men, women and children in our state breathe carcinogenic levels of radioactive radon for years.
In many cases, the cancer risk from radon exceeds the risk of smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. Almost all of the patients that I have met were unaware of the radon problem and were horrified to hear that our public codes did not protect them.
In my opinion, this is a public health issue of grand proportion (USA Surgeon General Report 2005) and, although acknowledged by the state Legislature in 2013 with its passage of Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 that emphasizes the citizens’ responsibility to make themselves aware of radon, further legislative action is necessary. Funding is needed to mount a comprehensive radon awareness campaign. Furthermore, there should be statutes that will require dissemination of radon information, including information about radon resistant construction, at the time of property sales and purchases or when someone applies for a building permit to build a new house or remodel an existing one.
I sincerely hope that during the upcoming legislative session, the state Legislature will take our radon problem seriously by taking actions to raise awareness of radon and help Utahns minimize exposure to this radioactive gas.
Wallace Akerley, M.D., is a professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Medical Oncology, at the University of Utah School Of Medicine and co-director of the thoracic cancer program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). Akerley is also an active member of the Utah Radon and Utah Radon Policy Coalitions.