For the week of June 3 thru June 9, 1998  

 

Radon is up in the air

Questions linger, but locals are ready to act


By ALYSON WILSON
Express Staff Writer

Natively abundant, radioactive radon gas runs as a strong, silent fiber through the environmental fabric of Blaine County.

The gas, when breathed, could alter delicate lung DNA and increase a body’s risk of developing lung cancer, studies show.

Radon, invisible and odorless, comes from decaying uranium that concentrates naturally in granite, river rock and soil in the Wood River Valley.

"There are some real hot spots here," said environmental health specialist Bonnie Christensen of the Idaho Radon Project and the South Central Health District.

"Blaine is of particular concern, because of its high levels from uranium in the ground," Christensen said.

Rising directly into the air, radon spreads and poses no health concern. But when radon seeps from the ground into a building where it becomes trapped, higher levels can collect and be inhaled.

RADON IN BLAINE

The Environmental Protection Agency, as part of a national program, has conducted nearly 400 radon level tests in Blaine County residences.

The agency ranked Blaine as having the second-highest radon levels of any county in Idaho.

If a measure of the radioactive gas is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), the EPA urges homeowners to fix their radon level.

In Blaine County, readings averaged 9.9 pCi/L, more than double the EPA’s danger level.

One site in Ketchum registered 222 pCi/L. Many homes collect 20 to 30 pCi/L of radon, while still others carry quite negligible or zero concentrations.

Despite the danger, building codes in Blaine County do not require that contractors or architects perform even the most basic of radon testing.

"It all depends where a house is built," Christensen said. "You can’t say to your neighbor, ‘I tested my house and it was fine.’"

Some homes are "tighter" than others, and gases that enter naturally or are drawn up by furnaces do not escape.

More radon collects in such homes than in those that are draftier and "breathe."

One local architect and Zinc Spur resident confronted high radon radioactivity in his own home more than a decade ago.

Several radon tests at the family home of Stephen Pruitt of Architecture+ registered around 22 pCi/L, more than five times the cut-off level.

"We were startled, so we brainstormed and did something about it immediately," Pruitt said.

He had a pipe and fan system installed, costing between $400 and $500, to draw the gas from under his home and vent it outside.

"Definitely well worth the money," he said. "We were kind of lucky. It could’ve been much worse."

It was technical and difficult, Pruitt said, because of interior planters opening to the earth and a foundation built into a grade.

The system erased the family’s radon problem almost immediately, but Pruitt said he was relieved he knew to have testing done in the first place.

"In all my homes in Blaine County we install a pipe that could bring up radon gas," the architect said. "If the homes are tested at a later date to have high radon, all they have to do is put in a fan and turn it on."

Pruitt said he knows of a handful of other local architects who regularly do the same.

HEALTH HAZARDS

The exact risk facing the Pruitt family, and others living in high-radon environments, is uncertain.

Health-wise, the cancer-radon connection is somewhat obscure.

"We don’t see huge rates of lung cancer here," Wood River Medical Center internist Dr. Dan Fairman said.

Blaine County has seen only 20 lung cancer cases between the years 1992 to 1996, inclusive, according to epidemiologist Chris Johnson from the Cancer Data Registry of Idaho.

Blaine County’s incidence rate is 34.5 cases per 100,000 people, lower than the state average, 46.6 per 100,000 people, Johnson reported.

There are not enough local cases to make a definite statistical statement about what the two incidence rates mean, Johnson said.

Additionally, no medical test links radon to the local cases of lung cancer, Dr. Fairman said.

However, the American Cancer Society claims there is a connection.

"The only known health effect linked to high levels of radon is an increased risk of lung cancer," according to Dr. Clark W. Heath, the society’s vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research. "Not everyone exposed to high levels will develop lung cancer."

Such shaky evidence is not without value.

Those in the medical profession are hesitant to disregard possible harmful effects of the radioactive gas.

Two groups, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Research Council, claim to have unearthed more riveting results linking radon and lung cancer.

Literature from the EPA states radon-induced lung cancer claims more lives than fires and airline crashes do, together.

Drownings, states the EPA, kill fewer people than radon. The agency counts between 7,000 and 30,000 radon deaths per year nationwide.

A study from the National Research Council, called BIER IV, shows data resembling the high EPA statistics.

BEIR VI estimates risks posed by exposure to radon in homes. It was conducted by the sixth Committee on Biological Effects on Ionizing Radiation.

"About 1-in-10 or 1-in-7 of all lung cancer deaths--amounting to central estimates of 15,400 to 21,800 per year in the United States--can be attributed to radon among ever-smokers and never-smokers together," the BIER IV study states.

Why the discrepancy? If radon is so abundant in Blaine County and so carcinogenic, why were there only 20 cases from 1992 to 1996.

Dr. Fairbrother offered one possible explanation.

Lung cancer "hides" for a long time. Medical officials from several sources estimate a 20-to-30-years dormancy period for the cancer.

This in mind, Wood River’s Dr. Fairman said radon would not likely have sounded any local alarms yet.

"What we’re talking about here is something that has a long, long, long latency period," he said. "Generally, exposure over a long period of time to any ionizing radiation can cause cancer."

Important to note, the latency period of lung cancer does not mean every resident will at once develop the cancer, Dr. Fairbrother said. It is simply one possible explanation.

NO CONCERN, NO CODE

Perhaps due to the ambiguous medical connection between local lung cancer cases and radon gas and to low public awareness of the radioactive gas’s abundance, Blaine County has no building code to address radon concerns.

"Up until this time, there has not been a lot of incentive to make a radon code," county plans examiner Fran Jewell said.

County building officials would like to see a building code recognize the hazards of radon gas, but the issue rests in the hands of residents.

"No one can enforce a code like that if the public doesn’t want it and, right now, I just don’t think people understand the seriousness of the issue," Jewell added.

"The public would have to say, ‘We want our building codes to include radon mitigation,’" county building inspector Bill Dyer said.

The building permit office hands every applicant flyers with testing resources, some of them free of charge.

"We’re always working on exposure, especially now, when we’re in the crunch of building season," Dyer said.

"But I very rarely have a contractor even ask me a question," Dyer said. "It’s just one of the 3,500 decisions new homeowners have to make."

Dyer could only remember one homeowner calling him with concerns about radon gas.

"New construction is a good place to push radon systems," Dyer said. "Especially because they are going up so much tighter than before, for energy saving and heating reasons."

A radon system means, simply, adding a pipe and fan to draw the gas from underneath a home and vent it into the air. The crawl space or basement must also be sealed.

Jewell described a more informed architecture community, confirming Pruitt’s statement about his peers.

"Some architects are implementing the systems in more expensive homes," she said. "Everyone should, though. They’re so simple to put in. I just don’t think most people understand radon or the seriousness of it."

President of the Blaine County Building Contractors Association Mike Chase explained local radon apathy. The BCA is a group to which 60 of the 250 local building contractors belong.

"All the builders want to build good homes, but a lot of people use codes as a minimum standard and, if it’s not in the code, they don’t do it," Chase said. "Everybody’s trying to ignore it until someone enforces it."

"What happens is the builders leave it up to homeowners, and the homeowners leave it up to builders [to check for radon]. The builders, as well as the owners, should be aware of it," he said.

Chase said he owns his own electric tester, purchased from a local hardware store.

COMING CHANGES?

The bulk of a $10,000 federal grant go to work in Blaine County, said Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s state coordinator for the Idaho Indoor Radon Program Kara Bishop.

"We need to let people know that this is a problem before they buy a house or even hear about it years later," Bishop said.

Those involved in the radon program will try to form a coalition of builders, Realtors, and concerned residents.

A series of classes early this summer will teach homeowners do-it-yourself radon fixes.

Christensen of the South Central Health District’s Idaho Radon Project is doing the local footwork to create momentum in the direction of radon awareness. She will oversee the radon watchdog group’s assembly.

Ultimately, Christensen said she wants to see control of radon testing through building codes.

For now, though, she said she’ll be happy with more local education.

"It’s not something that’s drastic. It’s not something that happens quickly. It’s a lifelong problem," Christensen said. "Things have just kind of slacked off in a way. We are going to try to do something about that."

 

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