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A Deadly Agent Lurking In Minnesota Homes

Date Published: 11/23/2004 [Source]

It's not something we can see, smell or taste. Yet, we're exposed to radiation or radon pretty much every day.

You may not think it's a problem. But the Minnesota Department of Health estimates one in three homes right here have enough radon to put you and your children's health at risk.

Sometimes the book of life, opens chapters we'd rather leave closed. For Bill and Elizabeth Hoffmann that chapter opened last year.

"Last June and July, I just had a cough that wouldn't go away,” Elizabeth said. “And intermittent pain below my left shoulder blade."

X-rays revealed a tumor the size of a peach pit. It had to be removed.

At the young age of 37, Elizabeth had cancer.

Elizabeth was shock. "I have never smoked. No history of lung cancer. No reason why I should have had lung cancer."

Tests found high levels of radon.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that occurs naturally in soil, rock and water.

The problem is when it enters your home, especially when it's sealed up tight like we like it in the winter, then it can be deadly over time. And that's why we're more at risk living here in the Midwest.

Some states with similar risk for radon exposure, like New Jersey, require you to test your home or install a system to keep radon out.

Minnesota does not.

As many as 20,000 or 12 percent of all lung cancer cases diagnosed each year could be caused by radon.

The problem, the tumors don't look any different from other lung cancers and unlike Elizabeth's doctor few doctors ever ask patients to test their homes for radon.

The test is simple and inexpensive, only a few dollars. Place the sponge in your home, close the door and wait a few days.

Then mail it to a lab and wait for the results. If the results read four and below, the EPA says you're safe.

Anything above and you may have a problem.

"Eight or 8.6 is what it originally tested at, “ Elizabeth said.

The radon level in Elizabeth and Bill's house was more than double the level considered safe and what's worse is they were breathing in all that radon for 15 years.

They paid $1,200 to install a radon mitigation system, which pumps the radon inside their home out through a pipe in the roof.

The radon levels are actually like the ground levels outside so it's a very safe environment now.

But the reality of what they've already endured is tough to measure.

"The five year survival rate with people with lung cancer is only 15 percent,” Elizabeth said. “So I joke that my goal is to have a 70th birthday, but statistically I have a 15 percent chance to have a 42nd birthday."

At 37, Elizabeth realizes its too late to rewrite her story, but she's hoping to change someone else’s.

"Things happen for a reason. I feel my reason is, again, to have people test for radon so this does not happen to anyone else," Elizabeth said.

The reason these tests are important s that radon levels can vary house to house. And the only way to know if your house is safe is to test.

If you are building a new house, to protect yourself on the front end, you would need to ask your builder what steps they have taken or are taking.

Some install systems to keep radon out and it's cheap-- approximately $200.