Budget Cuts Could Lead to More Radon Deaths

Steven Reichert clears debris in Keith Kuby's Minnetonka garage as he installs a radon mitigation system on July 11, 2014. A radon test kit can cause as little as $15. Will Matsud/MPR/AP

In 2010, Gail Orcutt was diagnosed with lung cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock to the nonsmoker, who eventually had her entire left lung removed. She had no idea how she could have developed the disease until she came across an article about radon and learned it was the top cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. She also discovered that her state, Iowa, has particularly high levels of radon, so she immediately had her home tested and found elevated levels. Remediation, the removal of radon from her home, was a simple process that took one day and left her wishing she had done it years ago.

Most people are largely unaware that their homes could be putting their health at risk this way. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is odorless, tasteless and invisible, and the only way to know if it is in your home is to have a test done. A product of decaying uranium, radon gas permeates the soil, entering homes through cracks and holes in the foundation. It collects at higher concentrations indoors than outdoors, and levels can fluctuate depending on airflow in the home. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer (after smoking), and it kills approximately 21,000 Americans per year, many of whom are unknowingly poisoned in their homes.

The EPA has had a limited budget dedicated to educating the public about the threat of radon, but even those funds may soon disappear. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies recently shared President Donald Trump's proposed EPA budget cuts on its website; the move would eliminate the Indoor Air Radon Program and State Indoor Radon Grants.

Scientists first linked radon to lung cancer when they noticed that underground uranium miners exposed to radon were dying of lung cancer at high rates in the 1940s and '50s. In the mid-1980s, further research discovered the existence of radon in homes when a nuclear power plant was under construction in Pennsylvania. Before the plant was even operational, a worker consistently set off alarms for radiation, which led investigators back to his home, where they found staggering levels of radon.

"If I diagnose a nonsmoker with lung cancer, I suggest they test their home for radon," says Dr. Chandler Park, an oncologist in Kentucky, the state with the highest incidence of lung cancer. "We can test to see if there is radon in the blood, and if there is, and their home tests positive for elevated radon levels, we know that radon likely caused DNA damage that ultimately resulted in the lung cancer."

Radon creates a radioactive alpha particle that, once inhaled, causes damage to the cells in lung tissue that can lead to lung cancer. According to Park, most people have two copies of DNA repair enzymes that would typically fix the damage, but some individuals have only one copy, which is not sufficient to inhibit the manifestation of cancer cells. This would explain why a family of four living in a home with elevated radon levels might not all face the same risk.

The EPA Map of Radon Zones identifies varying levels of radon presence across the country in an effort to inform national, state and local organizations where to target their resources and implement radon-resistant building codes. However, homes with elevated levels of radon have been found in all three zones, which is why the EPA recommends that every home be tested regardless of geographic location. If the level is found to be above 4 pCi/L, action should be taken to remediate.

"The real problem," according to the EPA, "is that not nearly enough people are doing something about it. Hundreds of thousands of new U.S. homes in high-radon potential areas are built each year without EPA's recommended radon-resistant techniques. Millions of existing homes have a radon level of concern that has not been fixed. Building homes with radon-resistant techniques and fixing existing homes are both relatively easy to do."

Mail-in test kits can be found for as little as $15, plus a fee to analyze the sample. Instant testing can be done with monitors, like Wave from Airthings, which produce results within two hours. These battery-operated monitors cost around $200, but they constantly track changes in air quality, instantly reporting spikes in unhealthy levels.

According to the Environmental Law Institute, public policy at the federal, state and local levels can be a catalyst for making greater progress in eliminating radon hazards. In 2011, leaders from nine federal agencies came together for the first multiagency effort, the Federal Radon Action Plan (FRAP), to shine a spotlight on radon and find ways within existing federal policies and programs to address it. In a 2012 report, the ELI made three clear recommendations to move beyond a "passive" radon system by incorporating requirements into building codes, providing hazard information as part of real estate transactions and establishing radon certification requirements.

Expanding on FRAP efforts, federal, private and nonprofit sectors joined forces in 2015 to establish the National Radon Action Plan, whose long-term goal is to eliminate avoidable radon-induced lung cancer. Janice Nolen is the assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association and leads the NRAP team. Despite years of effort, she readily admits that the essential driver of transformational change for radon is missing. "Because it's invisible, it's easy for people to ignore radon," she says. "We need people to understand that this is radiation in the home, and it is a major health risk—yet it is completely fixable."

As of June 2016, only eight states had incorporated mandatory radon control requirements for new home construction into residential building codes, and the proposed EPA budget cuts will not help the situation.

Personal economics certainly play a role as well, since remediation can cost up to $1,500, although, as Gail Orcutt says, "that's just a drop in the bucket compared to cancer treatment."