HOUGHTON - About 21,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer caused by radon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. After smoking, that makes radon the second leading cause of lung cancer death.
But many of those deaths are preventable, said Lynne Madison, director of environmental health at the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.
"We have free test kits at all of our health department offices," she said, adding that "there are ways to remove it from homes with inexpensive ventilation systems."
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
Western U.P. Health Department Director of Environmental Health Lynne Madison shows off one of the radon test kits available free at the department.
The health department offers the test kits year round, but they're making a special push to educate people this January, which is National Radon Action Month. It's also an especially good time to test, Madison said.
"The best time to test is the winter," she said. "It makes a difference that the inside air is warmer and the outside is colder - it causes the home to draw in more gas."
There's also less chance for homes to self-ventilate, she noted, with windows closed to keep the heat in.
Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that occurs naturally from the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water, according to the EPA. Average outdoor radon levels are about 0.4 picocuries per liter, but the gas congregates indoors, usually entering from the rocks and soil underneath a home through cracks in the foundation.
It can also be dissolved in well water, then released into the air inside the home.
The average indoor radon level is 1.3 pCi/L, and the EPA, recommends mitigation any time the level in a home exceeds 4 pCi/L.
According to Air Chek, Inc., a national company that distributes radon test kits, homes in Houghton County average about 2.2 pCi/L. In Keweenaw County, the figure is 1.1 pCi/L, and in Baraga County, 1.8 pCi/L.
"What we know about western U.P. is radon is prevalent, naturally occurring in our geological formations," Madison said. "There have been a lot of homes in Houghton, Baraga, Ontonagon and other counties with high radon levels. I've seen homes with levels of 90, even over 100 pci/L."
She said that while homes with foundations would seem to have the greatest risk of elevated radon levels, she's seen high readings in mobile homes, apartment buildings and businesses as well.
"Everyone should test," she said.
The test kits are easy to use, she noted. They consist of an envelope with the test materials attached to the inner paper. It just needs to be propped open for three to seven days, then mailed in to the lab. Results will be returned within two to three weeks. The envelope is already addressed and postage is pre-paid.
The health department is offering the test kits at each of its offices in Hancock, L'Anse, Ontonagon and Bessemer, and residents are encouraged to call or stop by for more information.
The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resources Department is also currently offering free test kits to tribal members, according to the KBIC's January newsletter. For more information on the tribal program, call 906-524-5757.
If you do find elevated radon levels in your home, mitigation isn't out of reach. Madison said a basic system consists of a PVC pipe running from the lowest point possible in the home, where radon collects, to an outlet at the roof-line, with an in-line fan to drive the gas.
A confident do-it-youselfer can install a basic system for a couple hundred dollars, she said, while a professional system might run to about $1,500.
Air Quality Control is a Lansing-based radon mitigation contractor with technicians on call in the Keweenaw.
Marketing manager Dianne Cotton said her company can offer quotes on the phone based on the type of home, with a standard system running about $900. Prices could go a few hundred higher in certain situations, such as if a higher-power fan is required.
She said her technicians seal the foundation cracks that let radon in as well as providing ventilation systems.
"To bring in a professional is pretty cost efficient," she said.
Doing it yourself might be cheaper, "but you're not going to have a guarantee and that peace of mind. We leave a test kit, so we can make sure. If (there's a) problem, we'll come back out and fix it."
To learn more about Air Quality Control's services, call 989-686-2578.