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Victims of radon gas explain the importance of awareness

March 21, 2024
< 9 min read
victoms of radon gas

By Leslie Thatcher – KPCW Senior News Director

Podcast published March 19, 2024

victoms of radon gas


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.

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