Radon: The Radioactive Killer

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Radon is killing us. Why aren't we doing more about it?

This is Dustin Wallace. He is 39 years' old and has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He has never smoked a day in his life. 

Dustin Wallace

My parents weren't smokers. And I'm relatively lung and usually these things would be in someone a little bit older. The doctors also did not have a good explanation as to where this could have come from. 

Emily Wallace

The minute he called me and told me that he was in the emergency room. I knew that... I could feel the ground shifting beneath my feet in a way. I just knew that our life was not going to look the same.

Dr. Wallace Akerley

Utah is a unique state in the sense that we have the lowest smoking rates in the country. Despite that, the number one cause of cancer death remains lung cancer. Kind of a paradox to some degree.

 

Narrator

Each year, more Americans die of lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer. But, there is another major risk factor that increases the risk for non-smokers like Dustin. And not many people know what it is. You can't see it. You can't smell it. But it's always there. This isn't a riddle, it's radon. 

 

Emily Wallace

Well, we don't know what caused Dustin's lung cancer. There's a possibility that it could have been radon in a variety of places where he lived. 

Narrator

It's nearly impossible to prove if a specific case like Dustin's was caused by radon, but researchers and scientists can say for sure that radon does cause lung cancer. 

Dr. Wallace Akerley

Radon is still a major carcinogen that we can measure, we can fix, and we can eliminate. 

Narrator

Let's clear things up. First, we need to understand where radon comes from. Radon is an invisible, odorless radioactive gas. That's radioactive. As in radiation. The radiation comes from the breakdown of uranium in the Earth, and it occurs naturally. Radon gas seeps into the basements and lower floors of our homes, schools, and work places. These buildings can trap the gas and keep it inside. And there's another problem: as our buildings become more energy efficient, they have also become more airtight, making it even harder for the radon gas to escape. If radon gas gets trapped in your home, it would be almost like living and sleeping in a smoky bar. Any measure of radon isn't good for us, because exposure to radiation damages our cells. Thankfully, our damaged cells are built to repair themselves, but too much exposure can disrupt that process. Cancer at its most basic level is the replication of broken cells. 

Radon levels are measured in picoCuries in the United States. The EPA says that people with homes that measure higher than 2 picoCuries should be concerned. Those with homes whose levels are higher than 4 should do something about it as soon as they can. And at this point, you are probably wondering whether you have been exposed. Thankfully, tests are simple and inexpensive.

This is Eleanor Divver. She's the radon coordinator for the state of Utah. She says that people sometimes don't actually want to know their radon levels. 

Eleanor Divver

We see it all the time, unfortunately. People do not want to test. Ignorance is bliss. I think that they would rather not know than feel guilty

Narrator

Sometimes we think that what we don't know can't hurt us, but it can. Unlike gases like carbon monoxide that will kill you immediately, it can take years, even decades, for the damage from radon to turn into lung cancer. 

 

Radon testing is also hard to enforce. Utah, for example, has no laws or regulations about radon. That means that when you buy or build a home, there's no law requiring that you or the seller test the home's radon levels. Daycares, schools, churches, and community centers aren't guaranteed to have properly tested either. 

 

Utah isn't the only state with a lack of education and a lack of action. But this isn't a story of corruption, just ignorance. If you test your home and find that you have high levels of radon gas, it's never too late to fix it. You can install a ventilation system, and once you start clearing the air, your body will hopefully start to repair itself. It's simple, but it's a decision that needs to be made now. 

Emily Wallace

It seems like a small step to avoid tragedy. That sounds like a dramatic way to put it, but if my husband passes away, regardless of what causes lung cancer, that would be a tragedy for our family and I wouldn't want anyone else to go through that. 

Dustin Wallace

Even though we can prove where my lung cancer came from, they have done studies and they can prove that radon does cause lung cancer. If you can avoid going through what I have to go through now. I've had brain surgery that took me out of work for a long time. I've had radiation on my brain. I'm losing a bunch of hair on the back of my head. Probably can't tell on the camera. And I've had radiation on my should, and my now shoulder is a lot more sore than it used to be. So, if you can avoid going through that for the small cost of having to have your house mitigated, I think it's worth it.