DHS guest opinion
The following guest opinion was published in the Oct. 2005 issue of ORHealth, a magazine distributed at 300 outlets in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. It was written by Terry Lindsey, DHS radiation protection manager.
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When Second Place is Still Deadly
By Terry Lindsey
Almost everyone knows that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, but the number two cause will probably surprise you.
It's radon--an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas found in soil throughout the world--and it accounts for about 20,000 deaths in the United States each year.
Many Oregon areas show high radon readings, and some of these are in Marion County and Salem.
Radon comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks and water. It can become a serious health hazard if it is present in high levels. Radon may register high in one home and low in an adjacent one for a variety of reasons. These include differences in natural soil minerals under the house, or the ability of gas to get into the home through cracks in the foundation, crawl space soil, or plumbing or electrical conduit entries in the basement or lowest level.
Damage to health occurs when the radioactive particles become trapped in the lungs, where it can cause tissue damage. It takes many years of radon exposure for lung cancer to develop, but the higher the exposure the greater the risk--and the sooner lung cancer can occur.
If you smoke and your home has high radon levels, your risk of lung cancer is particularly high.
Testing is the only way to find out if radon is a health risk in your home. The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) recommends testing of all homes, because many areas have the potential for elevated readings, due to deposits of uranium-bearing soil beneath houses.
You can do testing yourself, with a kit from the National Safety Council. Because radon levels vary widely throughout the year, you need to order a long-term test kit--which should be used for at least four months--at a cost of $20. Short-term test kits are also available for $10, but they should be used only for an initial screening to see if radon is present.
Radon test kit order forms and a list of radon reduction specialists can be obtained on the DHS Radon Protection Services Web site or by contacting Raymond Jester, radon coordinator, at (971) 673-0496 or via email at email@example.com. Radon collects in the low areas of a building, so the test kit needs to be placed in the basement or the lowest living area of your home. After the recommended time period has passed, return the test kit to the manufacturer and you'll receive the results at no extra charge.
You can also hire a qualified tester to do the work. A list of qualified companies is on the DHS Radon Protection Services Web site.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an annual average reading that is below four picocuries of radon per liter of air doesn't present a significant health hazard. But if tests show the radon in your home exceeds that level, you need to bring it down. This means removing soil gases from under your home, venting them above your roofline and increasing the frequency of fresh air exchange in the house.
You'll probably want to get professional help, because lowering high radon levels requires technical knowledge. A list of qualified, EPA-certified companies in Oregon that provide this service is on the DHS Radon Protection Services Web site . The cost of lowering radon is usually affordable and effective.
Complete information about radon, the program, and test results for all 36 counties and by ZIP code levels are on the DHS Radon Protection Services Web site.
Remember: what you can't see or smell can be deadly. Make sure radon is not an unwelcome visitor in your home.
Terry Lindsey manages radiation protection services programs for the Oregon Department of Human Services.