Radon a real threat in Tahoe | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Radon a real threat in Tahoe

You can’t see it or smell it – but it can kill you.

Radon, a radioactive gas omitted from uranium, is responsible for between 7,000 and 30,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

But it’s not only the nuclear power plant workers or underground miners who are threatened by the invisible and odorless gas – most radon exposure occurs in the home.

Soils such as phosphates, shales and granites naturally release radon into the atmosphere. Houses sitting on those soils tend to trap the gas, exposing the owners to the threat of cancer.

Adrian Howe, a radiation control specialist for the Nevada State Health Division, said it’s a matter of geology.

“Radon is part of the uranium chain which is in higher concentration in granitic soils in the mountains,” he said. “The Tahoe area has a real high potential for homes to have elevated concentration levels.”

The cancer risk of radon exposure has been known for at least 100 years, according to Dave Quinton, an environmental health specialist in California who has been working on radon issues for 10 years.

“It was always thought of with underground miners,” he said. “Then one guy in Pennsylvania who worked in an energy plant was setting off radiation detection equipment on his way into work – before ever being exposed.”

Quinton said testing the soil under the man’s home revealed an enormous amount of radon seeping into his house.

“It was in the thousands of picocuries per liter,” Quinton said.

A picocurie is a unit of measurement in the trillionths for radioactivity.

The EPA suggests taking action to reduce radon levels in the home when they reach 4 picocuries per liter.

“If 1,000 people who had never smoked are exposed to 4 picocuries for their entire life, two of those 1,000 would get lung cancer,” he said. “If it’s 10 picocuries the number jumps to eight people who would get cancer.”

Smoking multiplies the effects.

A national survey conducted by the EPA and the United States Geological Survey in 1991 showed the average level of radon gas at 1.3 picocuries per liter in homes across the United States.

The study concluded that El Dorado County was at moderate risk and Douglas County at high risk of exposure to radon gas.

Howe said in the national study 164 homes were randomly selected for testing in Douglas County. About 69 percent of the homes tested in the Zephyr Cove area exceed the EPA’s action level of 4 picocuries per liter.

“I heard that some of the homes tested at the lake have exceeded 100 picocuries but I haven’t seen those results,” he said. “About 27 percent in Minden and 34 percent in Gardnerville exceeded the action level, with the highest level about 29.”

Howe said the results of the survey don’t reflect individual sites because so many variables like home ventilation and geographic location can change the test results.

“The nice thing about radon is that it’s easy to test for and an easy fix,” he said. “Everyone should test because there is no way to sense it. It’s the only way to know if you have a problem.”

Do-it-yourself tests are available at some South Shore hardware stores. Nel’s Home Supply carries a short-term test for $18.89.

Some inspectors are also certified in testing for radon.

Bruce Pickering of the Inn-Spec Home Inspection Service said he charges about $50 to test a home.

“It’s really no big deal,” he said. “We place a charcoal canister in the home for about three days and then we send that away to be lab analyzed.”

If the results are unfavorable, Quinton said home owners can lower their level of exposure by ventilating the crawl space under the house.

“It depends on the house and how it is built,” he said. “But the fix is usually 98 percent effective in lowering the level to about 2 picocuries per liter.”

Even with the threat of lung cancer as his fire power, Quinton said his job of public awareness isn’t an easy one.

“A lot of people think radioactivity is just hocus-pocus and that makes it a hard sell,” he said. “But there is some risk at any level, and the issue comes down to this – the cost of testing is so cheap, you simply can screen yourself out.”

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