By Melanie Bruski
In Suncrest, Stevens County and the whole of Eastern Washington, our homes are at risk of radon exposure. According to the Washington State Department of Health, radon gas is the single largest source of radiation for residents of Washington State. It is also the leading cause of lung cancer among the non-smoking population.
How many of our children live in basement bedrooms? And what can we do about radon exposure?
According to Jim McAuley, a Health Physicist with the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division, “Radon gas is a naturally occurring radioactive inert gas. It is odorless, invisible and released from uranium decaying in rocks, soil, and water.” He said radon can be found anywhere on earth, especially where there are high concentrations of uranium, like in Eastern Washington. “It is important for every home, regardless of where in the world it is, to test for radon,” McAuley said. if an initial test is found high, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends retesting with a long-term test. If the long-term test confirms high levels of radon gas, contact a certified National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) mitigator.
Radon levels do fluctuate and can change drastically over time, so it is important to retest levels in your home. The EPA’s ‘A Citizen’s Guide to Radon’ recommends testing for radon every two years, but if you are completing structural renovations or moving bedrooms into basements, you should test to make sure a mitigation system is not needed. Note: It is possible for your neighbor’s home to have low levels while your home has high levels, so don’t assume that you are safe because your neighbor’s home has radon readings below the action levels.
After speaking with some residents in the Suncrest area, it was discovered that numerous people in the community do not know about their radon risk and have never tested their home. When asked about testing for radon, Seana March, a resident of Suncrest, said, “It’s definitely worrying. I’m concerned that we weren’t advised that we should test again. The home inspector made it sound like it was a one and done test.” The few that have discovered higher than safe radon levels have had radon mitigation systems installed. One Suncrest resident, Kathy A., said, “We had it [radon levels] checked way back in the early 90s when we bought our home. They were high, so we had a mitigation system installed.”
While not every person exposed to radon will develop lung cancer, it is common knowledge that radon does increase risk of lung cancer based on cancer studies in humans – specifically underground miners who are at higher risk of radon exposure. If you are a smoker and live in a home with elevated radon levels, your risk of developing lung cancer is even higher than smokers who live in homes with no radon exposure. Radon in the home also poses a risk to pets. The National Institute of Health’s ‘Inhalation Studies at the Pacific Northwest Laboratory’ reports “…. more recent experiments involving chronic exposure have resulted in the induction of lung cancer in both rats and dogs.”
Well water and a public water supply that uses ground water rather than surface water is also a risk for radon exposure. While your risk of lung cancer is higher when radon is inhaled, inhalation risk is still a factor when radon is detected in water. There is also a smaller risk of stomach cancer due to elevated radon levels in water when it is swallowed. The EPA’s ‘Citizen’s Guide to Radon’ states, “Most of your risk from radon in water comes from radon released into the air when water is used for showering or other household purposes.” Radon mitigation systems can be installed for those using well water, and The American Groundwater Trust reports that “aeration systems can remove 99% of radon in water.” The EPA advises that if you have high radon levels in your home, you should test your water for radon as well.
There are limited numbers of free radon test kits available through funding by the EPA’s State Indoor Radon Grant. Gary Garrety from the Dept. of Health said that once the form has been submitted, allow 8 – 10 weeks for the (short-term) tests to be delivered.. However, if you need results sooner, such as for the purchase or sale of a home, Do-it-Yourself (DIY) radon test kits are available online or at your local hardware store, starting at around $20. Garrety said, “short-term radon tests are easy to find, inexpensive, quick, accurate, and easy to DIY.” He said water test kits are also easy to find and that it is important to test private wells if used for drinking water. Community wells and public water systems may have already been tested and the results can be provided upon request.
Radon exposure is a very serious health issue for ourselves, our children and our pets. There are many resources for radon information out there, but when researching, please make sure that the websites and phone calls you are making are reliable medically and scientifically. Due diligence is incredibly necessary to find accurate and appropriate information regarding radon exposure.
EPA hotline for radon questions:
EPA hotline for reducing radon levels:
WSDOH Safe Drinking Water hotline:
WSDOH Radon Office: 360-236-3246
WSDOH Radon Q&A: https://doh.wa.gov/community-and-environment/contaminants/radon
WSDOH Free Radon Test Kits: https://doh.wa.gov/form/radon-test-kit-access-form
EPA’s ‘A Citizen’s Guide to Radon’: https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2016-12/documents/2016_a_citizens_guide_to_radon.pdf
Reporter’s Note: Thank you to Jim McAuley and Gretchen Stewart with the EPA for their wealth of information and enthusiasm for notifying the community about their radon risk. Also to EPA’s Beth Clemons for fact checking the science behind this article. Another big thank you to Gary Garrety from the Washington State Department of Health for his tips on testing and information on free test kits. These folks are really out there wanting to help our community!