Radon levels at home still worth checking

August 16, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

There's never a shortage of health crises -- cancer, AIDS, infant mortality, obesity, a resurgence of tuberculosis.

Some stay in the public consciousness for years, even decades. Others burst on the scene then disappear.

Remember radon?

Before 1985, most people had never heard of it. Then suddenly, the public was bombarded with studies, stories and scary statistics. Brochures from legions of new testing companies warned that the gas causes lung cancer at certain levels.

The hysteria quickly passed. Concern over radon, which can harm the lungs and is emitted from uranium decaying beneath the earth's surface, faded from the public's health agenda.

Should homeowners still be concerned about the odorless, colorless gas?

Yes, said Katherine P. Farrell, Anne Arundel County's deputy health officer. But, she added, radon is not nearly as serious a threat as other health risks, such as smoking.

"This isn't an emergency," she said. "It is a very low, long-term risk."

To put it in perspective, one should look at cancer death rates, she said. Although 30 percent of all cancer deaths are related to smoking, only 3 percent are caused by radon, she explained. Nationwide, the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon causes 7,000 to 30,000 lung cancer deaths a year.

Because of the county's high cancer rates overall, and high lung cancer rates in particular, health officials want to reduce the amount of all carcinogens, including radon, said Dr. Farrell.

Last year, the health department surveyed the county to see if radon was a health hazard here. Of the 149 homes tested, 82 percent had radon levels below the "action level" set by EPA guidelines. Eighteen percent had levels high enough that the EPA recommends corrective action, such as an improved ventilation system.

All of the homes with high levels of radon were located in the middle and southern parts of the county, with most clustered in the south.

Dr. Farrell said the health department's findings are not cause for alarm. Still, residents who have never had the radon levels checked, particularly those living in the southern parts of the county, should buy a test kit and get a reading.

She suggested putting the test kit in the basement near the sump pump, where the most concentrated amount of gas would likely seep into the home. She also suggested testing during the winter. The highest levels of gas build up then because homes are shuttered to keep out the cold.

If the test shows levels above what is considered safe, the homeowner should probably consult a professional company for additional testing. The companies should be licensed and use an EPA-approved laboratory.

"It's fairly simple to fix, if there's a problem. So there's no reason not to do it," said Dr. Farrell.

According to county health officials, all homes should be tested at least once.

For more information, call the Maryland State Radon Hotline at 1-800-872-3666. A brochure on radon is available from the American Lung Association by calling 1-800-492-7527.

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