Five ways to improve your Utah home’s winter air quality

Utah’s winter outdoor air quality is often worse than major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and poor air quality can reduce Utahn's life expectancy by up to 3.6 years. Experts attribute 2,500 and 8,000 premature deaths in Utah to air quality issues.

Air quality also puts a strain on the broader economy. According to a study that included University of Utah scholars, the economic cost of air pollution can total upwards of $3 billion annually. 

While Utah’s outdoor winter air quality receives a lot of attention, health experts say it’s just as important to pay attention to indoor air quality. According to the American Lung Association, Indoor air can be 2–5 times more polluted than outdoor air, and many Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. 

Indoor air can be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air. -American Lung Association

This winter, Utahns are advised to improve the air quality inside their homes by:

Replacing the furnace air filter

Air filters can last up to 6–12 months, but some need replacing sooner. HVAC professionals suggest Utahns check their air filters monthly and replace them as soon as they look dirty or full. Depending on how many people are in a home and how large the home is, replacing the filter more or less frequently may be necessary to maintain good air quality. 

It’s important to remember not all air filters are created equal. Air filters are ranked on a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) scale from 1–12, with 12 filtering the most particulates. A lower MERV filter might be a good fit if base particulates like pollen or dust mites are the only concern. However, if the home is exposed to tobacco smoke, is in an area with high outdoor pollution (like the Salt Lake Valley in the winter), or is at risk for mold spores, a filter on the higher end of the scale may be advisable. Normal furnace filters don’t impact gaseous pollutants in homes.

Testing for radon

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and Utah has four times more radon than the national average. In fact, one in three homes in Utah has dangerous radon levels (compared to 1 in 15 homes nationally). Because Utah homes are shut during the winter months and because snow and cold temperatures reduce the amount of radon that can escape outdoors, the concentration of radon inside a home can increase significantly during cold months.

This is an important issue for homes with families in particular. According to Nick Torres, an advocacy director of the American Lung Association, households with children should be extra wary as kids are more susceptible to radon.

The only way to detect radon is to test for it. Currently, all Utahns can get a free radon test at UtahRadon.org, and normally, tests can be purchased from the State. 

Even if a home has been tested before, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends testing every two years for radon.

The only way to detect radon is to test for it. [image courtesy of Alpha Energy Laboratories] 

Running an air purifier

Plenty of things can impact the air quality inside a home, including pollution, dust, dander, and other “particulate matter,” which refers to the solid and liquid particles in the air we breathe in that are far too small for the eye to see. Air purifiers help reduce the particulate matter load, thus reducing the likelihood of developing lung diseases, and some can also curb the spread of airborne viruses and bacteria.

A good quality air purifier can help keep all these irritants at bay. Purifiers have a limited range, so homeowners may need more than one in a home. Purifiers do not help with gas-based contaminants like radon and carbon monoxide.

Checking carbon monoxide detectors

Just like radon, carbon monoxide can’t be detected with human senses, so it’s crucial to have carbon monoxide detectors inside all homes. Like smoke detectors, these should be checked and cleaned regularly, and batteries should be replaced annually.

Carbon monoxide poisoning may start with flu-like symptoms and can eventually cause brain damage, so it’s important to maintain CO detectors to prevent exposure from being misdiagnosed as a seasonal illness. The EPA recommends placing one detector on every floor. These detectors generally cannot detect other harmful indoor gasses, like radon.

carbon monoxide detector
Replace batteries in carbon monoxide detectors annually

Increasing ventilation to avoid mold

Mold grows in humid, damp environments, and if mold grows in a home, it can cause many health issues. Many Utahns ignore the potential of mold growth because we live in such a dry environment, but it’s still a major concern in Utah.

Mold can start growing in a home in as little as 24 hours. To avoid mold growth, increase ventilation in bathrooms and laundry rooms using small fans. If moisture increases noticeably inside a home, use a dehumidifier to trap the humidity and return areas of a home to a healthy moisture level.

All of these measures can be understood as short-term solutions with long-term impacts. Testing for Radon is a short-term activity with potentially long-term implications — that’s the arc of outdoor and indoor air quality in Utah. The longer-term health impacts are best mitigated by regular, proactive actions by individual Utahns.

Utah leaders and radon survivors push for more testing

Radon Survivors - Radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and 1 in 3 Utah homes have dangerous levels, yet most homeowners are unaware.

In response, Utahns, who have been impacted by radon gas, shared a life-saving message — and an invitation for free radon testing — with KSL and UtahRadon.org as a part of National Radon Action Month.

Learn more about radon:

What is radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that causes lung cancer, as one Utah woman explained in an article for KSL.com.

Where does radon come from?

Radon comes from the natural decay of uranium deposits in the ground. It seeps through foundations in homes and enters the air we breathe. It is the most concentrated at the lowest level of the home, especially during winter.

Why is radon dangerous?

Long-term exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, and an estimated 21,000 Americans die annually from radon-induced lung cancer, according to information from the CDC.

How common is radon in Utah?

Utah has five times the national average of radon contamination. This is simply due to the higher concentration of uranium in the soil. Conservatively, 1 in 3 Utah homes have dangerous levels and while there are specific areas in Utah that have higher levels than others, every home should be tested for radon.

How is radon detected?

The only way to detect radon is to test for it. Testing is simple and only takes 15 minutes of your time over a 48-hour period. To get a free radon test, visit UtahRadon.org

How is radon removed?

Radon is removed through a process called sub-slab depressurization, or simply "mitigation." This process includes drilling a small hole in the home's foundation, creating a suction pit under the foundation, and installing a series of pipes connected to a fan that expels the radon gas safely to the outside air.

Most homes can be mitigated within a few hours. Mitigation typically costs between $1,700-$1,900. It is a permanent solution and requires very little maintenance.

Utah launches major radon testing effort led by experts, cancer survivors

Radon Testing Effort - In Utah, 1 in 3 homes has a high level of radioactive radon, a cancer-causing, naturally occurring gas that rises from the ground and into buildings. According to Dr. Wallace Akerley, a medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States and radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

This month, a consortium of radon-induced lung cancer survivors, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the University of Utah's Radon Lab, Akerley, radon professionals and UtahRadon.org are hoping to spread awareness about radon-induced lung cancer in Utah.

The group of advocates announced a goal for testing during the winter months when radon levels are highest.

"Radon is responsible for 21,000 deaths per year from lung cancer," Akerley said. "In Utah, we would like to have at least 21,000 people have a radon test performed in their house by Feb. 14."

It's imperative that every Utahn test. Recognize that if you test, you can fix it.

–Eleanor Divver, Utah Department of Environmental Quality

The hope is to recognize and honor the estimated 21,000 Americans that die each year from radon-induced lung cancer, while also matching or exceeding the rate of testing that occurred in Utah in 2023.

"It's imperative that every Utahn test. Recognize that if you test, you can fix it," said Eleanor Divver, radon project coordinator at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality

Divver also shared that if you have other pulmonary issues, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, radon can have a cascading impact, and that testing is crucial.

To meet the radon testing effort goal, Utah Radon Services is donating 21,000 free radon tests to UtahRadon.org. If a home tests high for radon, a certified radon mitigation company can install a permanent system in the home that will reduce the radon levels. Typically, this takes less than a day and costs between $1,700 and $1,900.

Non-smoking lung cancer is all too familiar to many Utahns, including Todd Smith, a Utah resident who lost his wife to the condition in late 2023.

"It didn't make sense that she had cancer. We didn't see it coming," Smith said. "Losing somebody to something like lung cancer is devastating. But, at the same time, there are also things you can do to avoid something like that."

Watch the video below to learn more about Todd's story.

Todd joined other community members such as Kerri Robbins, who received a stage 4 non-smoking lung cancer diagnosis after exposure to radon in her home, in advocating for awareness and testing.

"My diagnosis came because I did not know about radon. Our home's level was 31.3 pCi/L — it was like I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day," Robbins said. "It's so important to find out about radon and get a free test."

Since her diagnosis, Robbins has been on a mission to encourage every Utah resident to test for radon.

Watch the video below to learn more about Kerri's story.

To help reach the statewide goal and protect you and your loved ones, order your free radon test at UtahRadon.org. Click here to order a free test.

Radon: The radioactive gas that may be seeping into your home

By Sky Mundell, KSL.com | Posted - Jan. 25, 2024 at 7:58 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — January is National Radon Action Month and the American Lung Association wants to spread the message that Utahns should test their homes for radon (radioactive gas) contamination.

Radon is an odorless, colorless radioactive gas that, without mitigation, poses an environmental risk for the development of lung cancer in those who are exposed to it in lethal amounts.

"A little over 40% of radon tests in Utah find levels above the action level where the (Environmental Protection Agency) recommends that mitigation systems are installed," said Nick Torres, an advocacy director of the American Lung Association. Radon is particularly dangerous because it is a cancer-linked gas and virtually undetectable in any amount without proper testing.

Torres explained that the EPA's action level for immediate mitigation of radon levels is when an environment is tested and radon levels exceed 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter); however, Torres recommends that Utahns who test their homes and find levels at or exceeding 2 pCi/L should seriously consider consulting a radon expert to plan an appropriate radon mitigation plan.

Torres also advised that households with young children and babies be extra wary as children are more susceptible to sustaining damage to the respiratory system by inhaling radon (radioactive gas) because they breathe at a much quicker rate than full-grown adults — meaning in an environment contaminated with radon, children will breathe in the gas at a faster rate than adults.

While Utah in 2023 had the lowest rate of new lung cancer cases at just 25.2 cases per 100,000 people, radon is still a risk factor for lung cancer that advocates like the American Lung Association and survivors of radon-induced cancer are continually trying to make Utahns more aware of. Utah, like other mining states, tends to have more radon in its soil because radon is produced by the breaking down of uranium where the radon produced seeps into soil, rocks and bodies of water.

In homes, radon can seep in through cracks in the foundation and water systems to contaminate the air inside the home — according to utahradon.org, 1 in 3 homes in Utah are estimated to have dangerous radon levels.

"The average level is little over 5 pCi/L," said Torres, emphasizing how prevalent radon contamination can be in Utah homes. "Ten, 15, 20 pC/L is not unheard of; rates that are super high increase a person's risk for developing lung cancer. But, you just don't know unless you test."

The science isn't clear on how long and in what amounts humans can be exposed to radon (radioactive gas) gas without developing cancer. Hence, Torres recommends a proactive approach where households test for the gas regularly and consult a radon expert if radon levels from the testing indicate that immediate action should be taken.

"Radon testing can save your life or the life of your kids," said TJ Mellars, the general manager of Utah Radon Services, the state's largest radon mitigation company. He went on to explain that the risk factor of radon exposure can be compounded with other lung cancer risk factors like smoking to increase the person's chances of getting lung cancer.

Utah Radon Services, the American Lung Association, Hunstman Cancer Institute and several other entities have partnered to provide free radon test kits to Utahns, with the goal of having 21,000 homes tested by Valentine's Day this year. The significance of the number 21,000, Mellars explains, is that 21,000 is the number of estimated deaths each year in the U.S. that can be attributed to radon-induced cancer.

Kerri Robbins, a radon awareness activist based in Utah, didn't even know what radon was several months into her recovery from radon-induced tumors on her lungs and her brain. It wasn't until she saw a nonsmoking cancer specialist after her diagnosis of stage 4 nonsmoking lung cancer that she learned her home had outstandingly high levels of radon contamination, saying, "Our home's level was 31.3 pCi/L — it was like I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day."

Robbins immediately got in contact with Utah Radon Services and had a mitigation system installed in her home and is thankfully now making a great recovery, visiting her doctor every four months to make sure the cancer stays at bay. Robbins tells KSL that she has since taken it upon herself to inform everyone she can about radon and the importance of radon testing.

"I just feel like God has opened many doors and we're just walking through them doing what we can do," said Robbins, referencing her and her husband's mission to raise awareness among Utahns to get their homes tested for radon. She cautioned that even if you aren't aware of radon, it doesn't mean that it can't affect you — adding that she later found out that half of the homes in her neighborhood tested positive for dangerous levels of radon.

Robbins, Mellars and Torres each agree that the time to test your home for radon is now — to order your free test, visit utahradon.org.

Credit: By Sky Mundell, KSL.com