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Radon gas a silent killer

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A paper by Gloria Linnertz

[OCT. 27, 2006]  According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Environmental Protection Agency, radon -- an odorless, gaseous radioactive element -- is classified as a known human carcinogen because of the biological and epidemiological evidence and data showing the connection between exposure to radon and the occurrence of lung cancer in humans. The National Academy of Sciences Beir Vi Report in 1999 estimated that radon causes about 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths annually.

The U.S. government ranked residential radon exposure as one of the most serious environmental hazards. Congress has mandated that each state set up an office to deal with requests for radon assistance, but that is not enough.

On Jan. 13, 2005, Dr. Richard Carmona, the surgeon general, warned Americans about the health risk from exposure to radon in indoor air and indicated that more than 20,000 people die each year of radon-related lung cancer. He urged Americans to test their homes to find out how much radon they might be breathing. Carmona also stressed the need to remedy the problem as soon as possible when the radon level is 4 pCi/L or more.

Torn Kelly, director of EPA, referring to the North American Residential Radon studies (March 16, 2005) and the European Residential Radon studies (January 29, 2005), said: "We know that radon is a carcinogen. This research confirms that breathing low levels of radon can lead to lung cancer."

States are central players in the development of policies addressing indoor air quality. In the absence of a general federal regulatory scheme in this area, states are free to protect and improve the indoor environment. (It is interesting that radon testing is required for all federal government buildings but not for private residences.)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that approximately 6 million homes in the U.S. have radon concentrations above 4 picocuries of radon per liter of air, commonly expressed as 4 pCi/L. The primary adverse health effect of exposure to radon alpha particles is lung cancer. Because of their radioactive state, these minute subdivisions of the radon atom, called "radon daughters," can attach to walls, clothing, floors and airborne particles such as dust, smoke or aerosol spray. They are ingested into the lungs, attach to the lining of the lungs and result in lung cancer.

The Iowa Residential Lung Cancer Study (1993-1998) provides direct evidence of an increased lung cancer risk even at residential radon exposure levels below the EPA's action level.

A reading of 21 pCi/L represents 48 cigarettes a day, says the Alabama Department of Public Health. "Most nonsmoking lung cancer victims die without knowing the cause of their cancer," says Lane Price, M.D., a radiation oncologist and the medical director of the Decatur Oncology Center in Decatur, Ala. "The sad truth is that most oncologists are so focused on treatment, they give little thought to prevention. Even when they discover the connection to radon, it's hard to rally victims' advocacy groups when most people die within eight to12 months after being diagnosed."

According to the 2000 International Residential Code, 56 counties in Illinois rank in Zone 1, which is a radon level of 4 pCi/L or higher. Monroe County, the county my husband lived in [see note], ranked in the moderate level of Zone 2. However, the first radon reading in our house was 11.2 pCi/L, and the second one was 17.6 pCi/L. What I wonder is what is it like living in the Zone 1 area.

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Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich proclaimed January 2006 as Radon Action Month in Illinois and urged all citizens of our state to test their homes for radon to reduce their risk of developing lung cancer and to take corrective action when necessary.

"Lung cancer due to radon is totally preventable and is within our control," says Peter Hendrick, president of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.

Radon levels cannot be predicted; they must be measured.

If 1,000 people who ever smoked were exposed to 20 pCi/L of radon over a lifetime, 250 men or 143 women could die of lung cancer; and of nonsmokers, 33 men or 20 women per 1,000 could die, according to the EPA.

The most effective method of prevention of lung cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is reduction of radon exposure and smoking cessation.

Two studies in New Jersey and Maine found that homeowners greatly underestimate the potential deadly risk of living with high radon levels in their home. Primary care physicians, oncologists and public health officials should promote public awareness so that the radon problem is seen in the proper prospective. The cost of testing and mitigation of radon is small -- approximately $1,000 -- compared with the removal of a single cancerous lesion in the lung followed up with chemotherapy for a period of two years, amounting to about $240,000, according to Tom Heine, vice president of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.

Since the survivor rate from lung cancer is only 15 percent for five years after diagnosis, the logical thing to do is concentrate on prevention instead of treatment. Radon-induced lung cancer could cause up to 30,000 deaths a year, according to the EPA.

We must open our eyes and heed the signs before us. The Legislature must protect the citizens of Illinois just it did with the seat belt law. Many citizens will not protect themselves unless there is a law requiring them to do so. Illinois could and should be the first state in the nation to show real concern for the health of its citizens concerning the silent but deadly killer, radon.

Please support the development of a bill requiring that a house must be tested for radon and that a level of 4.0 pCi/L or above must be mitigated to a safe level before the house can be sold or rented.

[Gloria Linnertz, April 27, 2006]

Note: The writer's husband, Joe Linnertz, died of lung cancer Feb. 8. He hadn't smoked for 27 years. "If we had just known about this silent killer and how easy it is to test and mitigate, we would have done it," Gloria Linnertz said. She is dedicating herself to radon reform and education. See her story and others.

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