County hopes to raise radon awareness in district schools
Iowa is often called the safest state in the nation, so it may come as a surprise it harbors more of the invisible, odorless gas, which is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, than anywhere else in the country.
Jefferson County Sanitarian Dan Miller of the environmental health department is turning his focus to radon awareness as the nationally recognized Radon Action Month approaches in January. Miller has applied for a state grant to educate schools as well as supply the community with 120 radon testing kits free of charge.
Miller is an advocate of testing, which he said is crucial to knowing if residents are at risk. Radon accounts for 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year, 400 of which are Iowans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The only way to tell if your home has high radon levels is to test for it,” he said. “When you breathe in radioactive gas, it damages the lungs, which can cause mutations leading to cancer. If you have some predisposition to it, your chances are that much greater.”
The naturally-occurring gas is produced by decaying uranium in soil caused by glacial activity. The Iowa Department of Public Health estimates about 70 percent of Iowa homes contain high levels of the toxic gas, which enters buildings through cracks in walls and foundations.
Last year, Miller offered 100 free test kits through his department. He asked residents to report their findings, identifying 43 homes with high radon levels, 15 of which pursued radon mitigation projects.
Considering the $1,200-$1,500 cost of mitigation —installing a pipe beneath the slab of a home to carry air from beneath the building before it can enter — Miller said, “those are good numbers.”
Residents picked up all of the tests within five days, said Miller, indicating a growing interest from the community.
“I think there’s some awareness around it now,” he said, “but there are still people who aren’t aware of radon because you don’t detect it with your senses, there’s no incentive to do anything about it.”
Miller said he’s talked to community members who believed they’d suffered adverse health effects from radon. But it’s hard to find survivors of radon-induced lung cancer as it has a high mortality rate.
In Iowa, one such rare survivor is Gail Orcutt, an Iowa Radon Coalition spokeswoman and resident of Pleasant Hill. Orcutt was diagnosed with radon-induced lung cancer in 2010 and had her entire left lung removed. With no family history of the disease or of smoking, her occurance remained unexplained until she tested her home of 18 years for radon. She discovered radiation levels of 6.9 picocuries per liter, much higher than the 4.0 the Environmental Protection Agency deems hazardous to health.
“If I can keep just one person from going through this, I’d feel it was all worth something,” Orcutt said in an interview with the American Lung Association.
Activists such as Orcutt hope to help pass legislation for testing and mitigating radon. Miller said broadening his reach to schools could be another way to make an impact. This year, for the first time, he said funding was available for larger projects beyond free test kits. While the grant is for $2,000 at most, he said it would be enough to begin education efforts. He said he’ll wait to approach schools until he hears back Dec. 19. if he’s been awarded the grant.
Fred McElwee, director of auxiliary services for the Fairfield Community School District, said district facilities have never been tested for radon.
“We have not tested for radon at this point, but it is on our radar,” he said.
While personally in favor of testing, McElwee said the school board would make that decision if grant money became available. Miller said testing of school facilities would most likely require more than the standard home testing kits.
“In large buildings testing is a bigger undertaking,” said Miller, “but on the other hand, we’re talking about our children.”
Miller is scheduled to ask the Fairfield City Council during the Dec. 17 meeting at city hall, as well as the county board of supervisors to approve a proclamation declaring January as Radon Action Month as he has done for the past four years.