The Silent Killer

By Megan Latshaw, Director, Environmental Health Programs, APHL

Imagine a killer that you can’t see, hear, touch, or smell… one that can creep through walls and floors, killing you so slowly that you’re not even aware of it.

How would you protect yourself? Who would believe you if you tried to tell them?

This is not a reprise of the Invisible Man, it’s not the story of a paranoid schizophrenic, but rather it’s the story of radon – an odorless, colorless gas found under homes, schools and workplaces across the US.

Did you know?  Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US. Exposure to radon is responsible for an estimated 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

Radon remediation system

So this is a story of radon, but it’s sort of my story too… Not many people can say they almost caused a family rift over radon, right? I can.

Our story

Finally ready to settle down and buy a house, my husband and I employed his father (a real-estate agent) to guide us through the process. Walking through the door of the second house we visited, I knew: this was it! Every step through the house increased my certainty. The first time I hesitated was in the basement.

A funny looking plastic thing with a pipe going up through the ceiling made a soft whooshing sound. I asked my father-in-law what it was and he said it was a radon remediation system. Radon! Ack! My environmental health training kicked in and my prior elation slammed back to earth.

Not to be so easily discouraged, I did what everyone would do: I googled it. According to EPA, remediation systems are pretty successful at reducing cancer risk. But not to be too easily soothed, I decided we needed testing to make sure the system worked properly.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: my father-in-law tried to discourage me from asking for testing. He tried to tell me it “wasn’t anything to worry about.” “What?!” I responded, “Lung cancer isn’t anything to worry about?!” I could feel my frustration rising to surface. “What if we have children someday?” He just rolled his eyes and smiled. Well that sealed the deal: I demanded that we have tests done.

You may think the story is over, but this may be the most important part. My dear (he really is a dear) father-in-law recommended a company to do the testing. Knowing from my research that there are certifications for radon professionals, I immediately searched the lists for the company he recommended… they were not certified! I was livid, first he rolls his eyes at me, then he gives me a non-certified company.

Luckily, I did my own research and our results (from a certified testing company) came in at acceptable levels. Luckily too, my husband’s father is a sweet, lovable guy, who I hope now takes radon more seriously. (Are you reading this, Bob?)

(I won’t go into the story of my battle with my daughter’s day care over their lack of testing for radon, despite being in a hot spot.)

So what can you do?

  • Check out the EPA’s website.
  • Test your home.
  • Talk to your children’s schools about testing.
  • Potentially save a life!

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