A recent study found high levels of a cancer-causing radioactive gas in homes throughout a four-county area that includes Sauk County.
Officials say the results of the study, conducted by the South Central Environmental Health Consortium, should convince more people to have their homes tested for radon.
“We just wanted people to know that there are high levels around here,” said Matt Kachel, an environmental health sanitarian with Sauk County who helped implement the study. “We think it’s a valuable thing to get your home tested.”
Radon is an odorless, invisible, and radioactive gas that naturally occurs in soil. It can seep into homes, and exposure to high levels over long periods of time can cause lung cancer.
From November through January, the consortium, which includes Sauk, Columbia, Juneau and Adams counties, provided free entry in a raffle contest to people who tested their homes for radon. An independent laboratory in Texas then analyzed 273 samples.
The average radon level of homes tested in each of the four counties, and in several outlying counties, was as follows:
Sauk County: 5.4 picocuries per liter
Columbia County: 4.8 picocuries per liter
Juneau County: 2.5 picocuries per liter
Adams County: 1.9 picocuries per liter
Outlying counties: 3.2 picocuries per liter
The average radon level of all the homes tested was higher than the national average of 1.3 picocuries per liter.
In Sauk and Columbia counties, the average radon level was above 4 picocuries per liter — the threshold at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that a homeowner take corrective action.
“I would say the geological formation is why we see a difference,” Kachel said about the higher levels in Sauk and Columbia counties. “That’s just my opinion. I can’t prove that.”
Kachel said it’s possible the sandier landscapes of Adams and Juneau counties provide more opportunity for radon to escape the earth, while the rockier surfaces of Sauk and Columbia counties may funnel the gas into homes.
Overall, 31 percent of the homes surveyed were above the EPA action level.
Of the 15 municipalities in which five or more radon tests were completed, seven of them had radon averages above the EPA action level. Those municipalities included Baraboo, Reedsburg, Prairie du Sac, Lodi, Sauk City, North Freedom, and Rio. Sauk City and Lodi reported the highest averages.
Kachel said the study also debunked a common myth about radon gas: That newer homes are less likely to have high levels.
Participants were asked whether their home was built before 1950, from 1951 to 1970, from 1971 to 1990, from 1991 to 2000, or from 2001 to present. Homes built after 2001 had the highest percentage of test results above the EPA action level, the study found.
While the exact cause of that finding is not known, Kachel said one possible explanation is that newer, tightly sealed homes produce a greater suction effect than older, leakier structures.
The EPA estimates that radon causes more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year, and is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, after smoking.
Officials say homeowners and apartment dwellers should test for radon, regardless of whether they have experienced any adverse health effects, because lung cancer caused by radon can appear without any forewarning symptoms.
A national map developed by the EPA shows about half of Wisconsinites live in a zone in which homes are likely to have radon levels above 2 picocuries per liter, and another half live in a zone where homes are likely to have levels above the action level of 4 picocuries per liter.
Jessica Maloney, the Radon Program Manager at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said radon levels vary throughout the state.
“There are some areas of Wisconsin that we know have consistently shown high radon potential and the geology of those areas is similar,” Maloney said. “However, it all depends on how close the home being tested is to a uranium deposit in the soil, which is where radon gas is derived from. You can test your home and be fine, and your neighbor can get a (high) level… That is why it is so important to test to be sure.”
Maloney said there also is a perception that because radon occurs naturally, it can’t be bad for you. However, lung cancer, the long term health effect, has a five-year survival rate of 16.6 percent. That’s much lower than the survival rate of other cancers, such as colon, breast, or prostate.
While some states require radon testing, Wisconsin does not. However, officials recommend corrective action if tests reveal radon above the action level in a home. That includes drilling a pipe into the lower level of the home and installing a fan system, and can range anywhere from $800 to $1,200. Homeowners should find a certified contractor by visiting www.lowradon.org.
“I get plenty of phone calls where I explain the test, mail a kit to the person, and it never gets used,” Maloney said. “Testing is the easy part of the process.”
CREDIT: Tim Damos email@example.com, 608-356-4808 ext. 238