Many know of someone who died of lung cancer but never smoked, and it seems to be a more common diagnosis each year. What's behind it? Though second-hand smoke is certainly a culprit, the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking is something that may be lurking in your own home.
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Information: Radon in Minn. Homes
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Jamie Gunn's home is quiet and cozy, and it looks like any other house in the cul-de-sac -- but her home was invaded by something sinister that slipped into the basement, unseen or unheard. The killer worked slowly and methodically. When it finally struck, it extinguished a radiant mother of two.
Jamie's mother died of lung cancer even though she never smoked a cigarette in her life. Barbara Neitge, 54 suffered and died from the disease. Now, the cause is being traced right back to her home.
After Neitge was diagnosed, the family checked for radon in their home and found the levels were through the roof. Gunn and Neitge's widower still live in that house but have since corrected the problem with a radon reduction, or radon mitigation, system.
What Is Radon?
Radon is a radioactive gas that seeps up from the earth from the soil and rock. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
"You breathe it in, and the radioactive element breaks down. It can actually damage the DNA inside of your lungs. When that DNA tries to repair itself, it can actually lead to mutation and uncontrolled growth -- lung cancer," said Andrew Gilbert, Minnesota's radon guru.
Radon comes from the natural decay of uranium found in all types of soils. Uranium breaks down into radium. As radium breaks apart, the radon gas moves up through the soil, through concrete or cracks in foundations and into the air.
Finding a Silent, Invisible Foe
Radon is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It creeps up from the soil through basement walls and concrete floors. Dirt crawl spaces allow the gas to easily penetrate a home, and so do cracks or spaces in concrete floors, walls and spaces for utility pipes or sump pumps.
The Minnesota Health Department says every Minnesota home, apartment or condominium should be tested. Yet, despite the state's best educational efforts, just a fraction of Minnesotans have tested their homes for radon.
The tests are easy to perform. You can get a test kit starting at just $7 from the state, but test kits are also available at hardware stores.
The tests work by hanging in a selected part of your home for three to five days and then are sent into the testing lab (test kit comes with instructions and stamped envelope). After about a week, the results will be available through the company's web site.
Watch the state's testing video:
It's not just stand-alone homes that are at risk either. Residents on the ground or basement-level of a condo or apartment should also use the test.
Increasing Medical Awareness
Oncology nurse educator Michele O'Brien work works with cancer patients every day, and she says radon education is a constant at Minnesota Oncology in Edina because of the patients she talks to, just one percent of them know what radon is and how to test for it.
O'Brien told the FOX 9 Investigators wishes more family practitioners would ask their patients about it:
"Until they (patients) come to a doctor who is more aware -- who has tested his own house and found they have high levels, that is not a question that is asked," O'Brien said. "They (patients) are never asked, 'Have you checked your home for radon?"
Results and Removal
The FOX 9 Investigators tested 12 homes in the Twin Cities, including the home of reporter Trish Van Pilsum. Of the dozen, five had radon levels above four picocuries, which is a measurement of radioactive decay. Anything result indicating levels above four picocuries means follow up tests are needed. Barbara Neitge’s home had a level of 39.
"Throughout the state, we see about one in three homes having levels over the EPA-action level." said Gilbert.
If you find your home, condo or apartment has high levels of the gas, you or a landlord can have a home mitigation system installed. Installation costs tend to start at $1,000.