HANCOCK - Radon is invisible and odorless. So there's no way to know if it's in a person's home without testing for it.
In the past decade, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department has given out about 2,500 home tests for the radioactive gas. About 10 percent of them have come back showing elevated levels of radon, said Lynne Madison, the department's environmental health division director.
In a high enough concentration, radon can cause sickness and even death.
Lynne Madison, environmental health division director for the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, looks at a home radon testing kit, which the department is giving out for free. About 10 percent of homes tested have shown elevated levels of radon, which creates a higher risk of lung cancer. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Garrett Neese)
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated between 15,000 and 22,000 people will die from radon exposure this year. Among non-smokers, it has become the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
The gas is natural, a product of decaying uranium and radium in the soil. As such, it could potentially be found anywhere, Madison said. It enters homes by seeping into basements and crawlspaces.
Once inside homes, radon decays further; the radioactive particles then attach to air particles, which can lodge in the lungs. More decay leads to the release of more radioactive energy, which can damage the DNA in the lungs.
Radon is judged to be elevated if there are more than 4 picocuries per liter of air. An average home will have about 1.3 pCi/L. In some local cases, Madison said, results have been close to 100.
"Testing each home is really the only way to know if there's a radon problem or not," Madison said.
In observance of National Radon Month, the health department is giving away free radon test kits at its four offices. To test, people can place the kit in a low-moisture spot in their homes for about three days. Windows and doors should be closed as much as possible during the test.
"It's just fold it up, send it in and two weeks later, you have your results," Madison said.
The EPA recommends following up a test showing elevated results with a long-term test or a second short-term test. In the latter case, action to fix the problem should be taken if the results of the tests average out to greater than 4.
"There's not really any safe exposure," Madison said. "Even levels under 4 have a risk, but the risk is lower."
The problem can be fixed with a simple ventilation system. A 4-inch wide PVC pipe can draw gas from under the house, safely piping it out the roof; if necessary, an in-line fan can be installed to bring the gas up the pipe. Other components include plastic sheeting above the gas permeable layer and sealing any openings in the foundation.
The cost ranges from several hundred dollars for do-it-yourself work or $1,200 to $1,500 for a contractor.
Such steps were taken in the homes with abnormally high levels.
"They were able to restore the radon levels in the home to below 4," Madison said.