Few Steps Taken to Address Iowa's Growing Radon Threat

Iowa- For Gail Orcutt it started with a cough and a wheeze — probably little to worry about for a thin woman who worked out and ate healthfully.

It got worse in that spring of 2010. Soon the wheezing came with every breath. So Orcutt went to the doctor. Then she had a lung biopsy. It was cancer.

Along with a fungus called aspergillosis, doctors found a cancerous tumor growing in a bronchial tube in the lower lobe of Orcutt's left lung. Why did she, an otherwise healthy non-smoker, get lung cancer?

The second-leading cause of lung cancer is radon — a colorless, odorless gas that seeps into buildings through cracks in walls and foundations. The gas, produced by decaying uranium deposited in the soil by glacial activity, kills more than 21,000 Americans each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. About 400 of those deaths are Iowans.

Orcutt tested her home of 18 years in Pleasant Hill and found that the radiation measured 6.9 picocuries per liter, far above the measure of 4.0 that the EPA deems most dangerous.

"I panicked," Orcutt said. "I could hardly breathe, knowing that's what we were living with."

Iowa has the nation's highest concentrations of radon, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. All 99 counties, including 70 percent of homes statewide, fall inside the EPA's danger zone.

Orcutt's cancer was caught early. After surgery, twelve weeks of chemotherapy and a lot of positive thinking, the cancer hasn't come back. Most of the radon is gone, too, thanks to the $1,400 mitigation system she and her husband, Bill, had installed in their home.

Small steps have been taken to address the health threat that researchers have acknowledged for decades, but a growing group of concerned Iowans worries that neither lawmakers nor doctors are doing enough to protect people in the state radon effects most.

An increasing risk

Increasing numbers of Iowans are testing their homes for radon — an encouraging sign, advocates say. Yet radon levels have increased across much of Iowa as people place a greater value on tightly sealed, energy-efficient homes at the expense of indoor air quality. Radon still enters those homes through the ground, but it doesn't escape.

"There are more homes now in need of radon mitigation than there were in the past," said Bill Field, a University of Iowa researcher and author of several key studies linking radon and lung cancer.

One of his recent studies found that people living five to 30 years in homes with radon concentrations of 3.0 picocuries per liter of air had an 11 percent to 21 percent increased risk of lung cancer. That risk increased with more radon exposure.

"Since most homes now have some form of air conditioning, as compared to before 1970, yearly average home radon concentrations tend to be higher," Field said.

That statement echoes the findings of an Institute of Medicine Report released in June, which warns about the increase of indoor air pollution.

"You want to save energy, but you want to make your first priority your health," said Mark Mitchell, who runs the one-man Mark Mitchell Radon Mitigation, based in Iowa City.

Mitchell, who originally worked in construction, has been mitigating homes since 1991, when it was still a rare practice. He said he first learned about Iowa's radon problem at early meetings about energy-efficient home construction. Most builders wanted to dismiss radon's danger, he said, believing mitigation was incompatible with conserving energy.

"They treated radon as a thorn in their side," he said.

Several forms of mitigation are energy-efficient and require only small amounts of airflow, Mitchell said.

Despite that, most new homes built in Iowa are built without radon in mind.

"Some of the worst indoor air quality I've seen has been in new homes," said Ruby Perin, director of Linn County Healthy Homes. "They're just too tight."

Searching for solutions

Six states — Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington — have enacted codes to mandate that new buildings be constructed as radon resistant. In Iowa, a handful of local jurisdictions, mostly in Eastern Iowa, have adopted preventive building codes. They include Johnson and Muscatine counties and the cities of Muscatine, Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty.

Iowa's few statewide rules mandate that child care facilities must be tested, that Realtors must present prospective homebuyers with a fact sheet on radon and that homebuyers must receive any data if a home has been tested.

The Iowa Radon Coalition is looking to draft and push legislation in the next session that would encourage more testing and mitigation. Members acknowledge the Legislature has grown less receptive to regulation, however, and they anticipate opposition from builders and Realtors.

Paul McLaughlin, legal council to the Iowa Association of Realtors, said that group would oppose mandatory testing and mitigation of new homes. He said the current rules work well.

"The vast majority of metropolitan markets honor the rule," he said, though he recently received a call from a rural Realtor who didn't know of the law.

"I don't think that the vast majority of Realtors are overly concerned about people not testing their homes for radon," he added.

Nationally, momentum is growing, though. In June, the federal government released an action plan to increase radon awareness and mitigation by leveraging existing government programs.

"They are working to spread the message with what little money they have," said Angela Tin, vice president of the American Lung Association in Illinois, where the Legislature recently passed a law requiring landlords to disclose results when buildings test high for radon.

The Iowa coalition is not relying solely on legislators; they hope doctors can get the word out, too.

After Orcutt told her family doctor about her cancer, he put up posters about radon in his waiting room and added queries about radon exposure to his patient questionnaire.

When asked why few doctors put radon questions on patient surveys, Lawrence Hutchison, president of the Iowa Medical Association, said: "That's a great question. Why don't we have it on there?"
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