The cause and effect of high radon levels

Radon is a radioactive gas that rises from the ground and gets trapped inside homes. Similar to carbon monoxide, it can’t be detected by our senses. Unfortunately, exposure over a long period to high levels of radon can cause lung cancer. In fact, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and causes 21,000 deaths per year in the United States.

Radon exists outdoors, too, but it dissipates into the air, so outdoor exposure doesn’t cause a major threat to our health. So, what level of radon inside is safe? We’re here to help you understand so you can protect yourself and your loved ones.

Is any radon exposure safe?

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), and you can find your home’s radon level by performing a simple test. Technically, no level of exposure is safe, but your health risk greatly varies depending on how much you’re exposed to. The average outdoor radon level is 0.4 pCi/L, but once levels rise to 2.0 pCi/L inside, it’s time to consider taking action. 

If your home has a high radon level, a radon mitigation system can be installed to reduce the concentration in your home. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends considering mitigation at 2.0 pCi/L, and the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests taking action at 2.7 pCi/L. Regardless, you should consult a radon professional near you—they can help you figure out when it is an appropriate time to install a system in your home based on your specific factors.

What contributes to high radon levels

The amount of radon in your home is correlated to how much uranium is in the soil below your home. Uranium is present across the state of Utah, and conservatively, one in three Utah homes has a high radon level. 

Additionally, the time of year you test and your home can contribute to the amount of radon in your home. Radon levels are higher in winter, so you should alternate your testing between winter and summer. Further, homes are often built more “airtight” nowadays, which means less radon can escape, and the concentration goes up. Finally, if you do any construction on your home or your home experiences a natural disaster, the structural changes can cause more radon to enter your home.

Test your home for radon today

Click here to request a free radon test If your home tests high, contact a certified radon mitigation company for a quote. 

Victims of radon gas explain the importance of awareness

By Leslie Thatcher – KPCW Senior News Director

Podcast published March 19, 2024

victoms of radon gas

Transcription

Leslie: Well, a group of non-smoking lung cancer survivors working to raise awareness and increase radon testing in Utah in the studio to tell us more and what to look for are two of those survivors. We've got Summit County residents Bill Johnson and Connie Alexakos. Good morning to both of you. Good morning. Good morning. Connie, maybe you can start and tell us a little bit about your story. How you got to this point in your life as a radon testing advocate?

Connie: Well, last August, I had just returned from a trip in Greece, came back and had a cough. Didn't know what it was. Had been fighting a cough for a long time and finally my GP sent me to get a CT scan and lo and behold, I have cancer and I've never been a smoker. I have lived a very healthy life. I'm 77 years old and I lived a really long healthy life and was healthy except for cancer and we sat down at Huntsman who has been great and Dr. Puri, my doctor at that time said, I said, well, how could I have gotten this? And she said, well, radon poisoning is the number one cause of non-smoking cancer. And I said, what is that? And I've lived in Summit County or Salt Lake County for 20 years and I had never heard of it. Just bought a house four years ago, bought a house and didn't know about it. So I got online, ordered a test and got to Utah Radon. My test was very high and my son in Wasatch County was even higher. The numbers were incredibly high. So we immediately called Utah Radon and they came up and mitigated. Now, if I'd known this years ago, I might not have cancer. I don't know, but I do know that testing is critical and our radon, the rate of radon here, one in three homes could have high radon. So it is, it is critical to test and it's free. You can get free test kits. So it's, it's a step that you can take that doesn't require anything except a test.

Leslie: All right. Bill, let's have you talk a little bit about, about your story and how you got here.

Bill: Yeah, so in June of 2023, I was diagnosed with stage four non-small, non-small cell lung cancer that obviously blindsided me because I was an avid trail runner, mountain biker, skier, typical park guy, right? Managing two, two young boys, active young boys. So it blindsided me and my family and, and I was just looking for some reason why. And so I, I can't say that radon caused my cancer, but I can say that, you know, again, as Connie said, you know, it's the leading cause of non-smoking lung cancer and I wasn't a smoker. So really just trying to be proactive and reach out to the community and, and have them test. It's an easy thing to do. It's free. And test often.

Leslie: Yeah. So have you tested your home and did you also have high numbers?

Bill: I did. Yeah. And I actually monitored, I bought a monitor for my home. And so in, in the lower level of my home, yeah, I tested high. And so I had to have that mitigated obviously. And I still continue to monitor that, monitor the levels in the house. But yeah, it did test high.

Leslie: Yeah. Everybody else in the family though okay? I mean, were they tested for something or?

Bill: Everyone's good. Yeah. I mean, so far so good. I'm, we're definitely lucky that my wife is okay.  And, and my two boys are healthy.

Leslie: Yeah. Had you ever tested your home for radon before?

Bill: Yeah. So we moved into our current house 14 years ago and we got a, you know, the, the passive cold test and, and tested it and kind of just, you know, it was fine at the time. And so we just never thought about it again for the 14 years. Right. And so I think what's important about radon is, you know, you have to take into the, take the variables into account. So, you know, different seasonal changes, whether there's snow on the ground, you know, maybe the neighbor's remodeling and, and they've disturbed the ground a little bit. And so that can all affect the radon levels in your home.

Leslie: Oh, that's interesting. So Connie had a cough. What kind of symptoms did you have?

Bill: Yeah. I mean, I was, I was running and, and, and how this happened to me is that I was shoveling the driveway and I thought I pulled my back out because of last winter's epic snow totals, right? It was shoveling again. And so I didn't have, you know, the typical symptoms, you know, persistent cough or shortness of breath or anything like that. And so I, what happened to me is it was all in my back. And so, so I thought I'd pull my back out. I did physical therapy for months. And finally in June, we, my wife was, you know, my wife and my physical therapist said, you got to go in and get an MRI. You got to check out what's going on. And that's when they found the mass in my right lung and it metastasized all the way up through my spine to my brain and then down into my hips, which pretty much made me immobile for a couple of months. So yeah, shell shocked.

Leslie: So you're doing better now. I mean, your prognosis is good and you're looking pretty good.

Bill: Thanks. Yeah, no, I think both Connie and I, we were, we linked up before obviously, and we're on, we take the same immunotherapy medication called Tagrisso. And that's done wonders for me. It's actually continuing to reduce brain and bone mets, but I do have some progression in my lung again. And so I'm on a new medication as well. Yeah.

Leslie: So would somebody know if radon is to blame? I mean, is there any way to test the level in your body?

Connie: I don't think there is a way that they can say you have cancer because of radon, but it is something you can test and prevent it if you're testing regularly. And they can't, and they can't say radon caused your cancer. They can't say anything did. Bill and I both lived really healthy lifestyles. I've never been really sick ever and have never smoked. Lived a pretty healthy life for 77 years.

Leslie: So talk a little bit about, well, your prognosis, you're doing okay as well. Right?

Connie: Well, I call it the magic pill, which evidently so does Bill and his family. And Tagrisso really stopped my cough. I had to have, it had metastasized to bone for me and other parts. And so I had a rod put in my femur, and it's attached with two big screws at my knee and my hip. But I exercise at least five days a week and still ski this silly mountain up here. So you just have to fight through those things. I feel good and I will probably never get rid of cancer, but I deal with it. It doesn't, it hasn't changed my lifestyle now that I'm on this great drug. And as I say, Huntsman has been absolutely fabulous. So.

Leslie: All right. Well, both of you, I guess, are on like a doing road, a road tour to what? I mean, KPCW is a stop. You doing other of these, just trying to get the word out?

Bill: Yeah. I mean, I'm just trying to get the word out at any level, right? So I think that it's really, you know, if you can build it into like your house maintenance schedule, right? So changing the water softener and anything like that, just order a test and get it done quarterly. So really just trying to raise awareness. So, yeah, as many platforms as possible. I want people to get out there and test and be proactive.

Leslie: Yeah. So, I mean, is that testing that often recommended? Winter, summer, spring, fall?

Bill: Yeah. I mean, I think so I actually use a monitor in my house so you can buy monitors as well as the free test kits from UtahRadon.org. But the monitor, I can actually check the levels. You know, it tests continuously throughout the day. And so you can actually see that it'll boost up in the middle of the night sometimes. And so, yeah, I think when I initially put the monitor in, it was summertime and everything was safe. And then the minute the windows closed in the fall and it got a little chilly and the heater kicked on, all of a sudden the levels went high. So that's really it. You have to test seasonally and test often.

Leslie: Yeah. How expensive are those monitors?

Bill: Well, yeah, I mean, they're so I use the EcoSense models and they're about $150 to $200. So and then they give you real data. So there's an app and a test like every 10 minutes or so.

Leslie: And you've both had your property mitigated. So has that kept the levels low and that what just provides some fanning, venting?

Connie: It is a vent that comes out of the house, blows it out into the air. My son, as I said, lives in Heber and he was very high and he had and we had mitigated as well there. So and he tests. We both test frequently. Yeah. Yeah. And I live in an over 55 community. They built two new houses in my neighborhood a year ago and it went sky high. I was shocked. Yeah. And none of my neighbors knew anything about radon either. So all 20 of us have now checked and know some are high, some are low and in a very small community. So you can't say that because your neighbor was low, you're going to be low. You have to check.

Leslie: Yeah. And so the fact that that when levels went high again, that's when the fans then kick on.

Connie: Absolutely. Yeah.

Leslie: In your basement or crawl space.

Connie: Yeah. Well, the fan, I think, blows pretty much all the time. Yeah. It just drags it out of the earth and takes it up.

Leslie: OK, so why would the levels come up again then?

Connie: Because they've been digging. They dug two basements really close to my house. I guess. I don't know. All I know is that I'm going to test and I'm going to preach it to everybody. Test and test frequently. And Bill gave the… you can also get on Utah Radon Services . Is that what it is? Utahradon.org.

Leslie: OK, and you mentioned that it is a free. Actually, I did that. Right.

Connie: So did you test?

Leslie: Yeah.

Connie: And how are you?

Leslie: I was a little bit above. So I'm going to retest because that's what they recommend.

Connie: Right.

Leslie: And then but we've also heard it's important that you do it.

Bill: Oh, yeah.

Leslie: Continuously.

Bill: Yeah. And I think I've even heard stories, locals in town, actually just by word of mouth, that even if they've had mitigation done and they went back and tested and it was high again, so and that could be because of, you know, the continuous construction, maybe next door. And so, yeah, even if you have a current mitigation in your house, I think, you know, it's advantageous to go ahead and test.

Leslie: OK, it does sound like I mean, I saw some data that almost three quarters of Park City homes tested for radon do have high levels. That's kind of scary.

Connie: Some of them, Wasatch, Wasatch County, both very high levels.

Bill: Yeah, I think geologically just Utah in general is prone to it. Right. So that's kind of why we're we're trying to really advocate at UtahRadon.org to get out and test.

Connie: OK. And I don't think that it is. You don't have to test legally when you sell a house here. I don't believe that is required, but it should be required by everyone.

Leslie: Right. Something you can negotiate. Right. In terms of whether who mitigates.

Connie: Exactly. Yeah.

Leslie: OK. Anything else you'd like to tell listeners?

Connie: Thank you for letting us come and speak and and just just tell everybody that is necessary.

Leslie: All right. Well, stay healthy. Bill. Thank you. Thanks for your time.

Connie: Thank you so much.

Your home could be putting you at risk of lung cancer, according to a leading cancer expert

Dr. Wallace Akerley, medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, encourages all Utah residents to test their homes for radon.

Utah has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, yet oncologists like Dr. Wallace Akerley with the Huntsman Cancer Institute have their calendars full of lung cancer patients. How can this be? The answer is simple: Radon is increasing the risk of lung cancer.

The leading cause of cancer in non-smokers

Lung cancer used to be known purely as a smoker’s disease, but the science behind the number one cause of cancer death in America has made strides. According to Dr. Akerley, lung cancer can now be broken down into nine diseases that can be further broken down into 18 pathways. In just a few years, that could increase to 30–50.

“All of the molecular [lung cancer] breakthroughs occur in patients who don’t smoke,” shares Dr. Akerley. “My interest has been dominated by never-smokers lung cancer, [and] radon is the number two cause of lung cancer.”

Radon is a radioactive gas, and anything radioactive can damage your DNA. This gas is created when uranium in the ground decays, and Utah’s naturally high uranium levels mean we have high radon levels, too. It’s estimated that one in three Utah homes has a high radon level—and most do not know it. Even more, radon levels can fluctuate due to weather, natural disasters, and structural changes in a home, and many people do not know you need to test regularly to avoid radon-induced lung disease.

“Most of the things we deal with in medicine, we’re always talking about a small chance of making a difference. If you’ve got a one in three chance of having a problem in your house today, it's something that you should do something about.” - Dr. Wallace Akerley, medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute

Radon flies under the radar

Lung cancer often goes undetected until it has progressed, especially in those who don’t smoke and think they are safe from environmentally-induced lung cancer. Kamas resident Connie Alexakos was a healthy 75-year-old woman when she was diagnosed with stage four non-smoking lung cancer that metastasized to her liver and bones. “I thought it was allergies,” said Alexakos when discussing her main symptom before diagnosis—a cough that gradually worsened. “[I] finally got to a CT scan and my [doctor] called me immediately and said, ‘You've got to go up to Huntsman. This is more serious. This is not allergies.” 

When Alexakos met with her doctor at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, she asked how she could get risk of lung cancer as a healthy woman who has never smoked. Her doctor explained that radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and encouraged her to test her home for radon. Alexakos was shocked by the response, “You're kidding. What? How could I have never heard [about] this?” She immediately ordered a free radon test and discovered the radon level in her home was 13.0 pCi/L, an equivalent cancer risk to smoking 26 cigarettes a day. 

Connie Alexakos was diagnosed with non-smoking lung cancer in 2023. Her home tested six times higher than the acceptable radon level. 

When asked what she wants Utahns to know about radon, she shared, “That it is the number one cause of [non-smoking lung] cancer. And, by the time you know about it and do something about it, it could be way too late. If I'd known about this at stage one, it could have been a much easier [treatment].” After the diagnosis, Alexakos had her home mitigated by Utah Radon Services. The radon levels decreased from 13.0 pCi/L to 1.4 pCi/L.  

You can take steps to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Most importantly, you can perform a simple, free, and reliable radon test to determine your home’s radon level.

“Most of the things we deal with in medicine, we’re always talking about a small chance of making a difference,”  Akerley noted. “If you’ve got a one in three chance of having a problem in your house today, at this moment, it's something that you should do something about. And it's something I want you to think about more than once over the course of the lifetime of living in a house.”

Risk of lung cancer? Request a free radon test for your home, visit UtahRadon.org.