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Radon: The Invisible Killer In Native Homes Across Indian Country

When Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan tested her Spokane, Wash., home for radon, she already knew about the dangers of the invisible, odorless radioactive gas.

When Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan tested her Spokane, Washington, home for radon, she already knew about the dangers of the invisible, odorless radioactive gas.

The manager of the Spokane Tribe’s Air Quality Program knew radon is the top cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, higher even than second-hand smoke, and the second-highest lung cancer risk over all.

Radon is linked to as many as 21,000 of the nearly 160,000 lung-cancer deaths each year in the United States, and to about 20,000, or 16 percent, of lung-cancer deaths in Canada.

Radon occurs naturally, caused by the breakdown of radium in the soil, so Abrahamson-Swan suspected she’d find elevated levels for many buildings on the uranium-rich reservation land with abandoned open-pit uranium mines.

What Abrahamson-Swan did not know was how much radon she’d find when she tested her own home to see how the testing process worked. The number was shocking.

Just 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air) is flagged as a danger level by the EPA.

Abrahamson-Swan’s home averaged 33 pCi/L with peaks of 53 pCi/L.

Courtesy Environmental Protection Agency

While this map, published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, shows the various potential radon levels around the country, individual structures in even low-rated areas may still have a high radon risk. That is why testing is important.

“I don’t smoke; neither do my kids, but our risk for lung cancer is the same as each of us smoking 106 cigarettes, or five packs per day,” she wrote in testimony to the U.S. House in April while appealing for additional radon-related funding.

Radon is virtually everywhere. As the gas decays, it releases radioactive particles that can damage cells in the lungs. While no safe level has been established, it’s known that the greatest risk comes from extended exposure.

That risk increases for people who smoke, and American Indians and Alaska Natives rank highest among racial/ethnic groups for smoking in adults and youths. Almost 22 percent of AI/AN adults smoke compared to 18 percent of all U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Radon gas levels in a house can be tested with either of two kits: short-term (3 to 7 days) or a long-term (90 days). These cost $5 to $30 (US) and can be purchased from many tribal, local, state or provincial health or environmental departments.

A good place to start for information is the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tribal Partners site. The EPA also has an online publication geared toward Native children, “Learning about Radon, A Part of Nature.”

The EPA recommends installation of a radon-reducing system for buildings that test higher than 4 pCi/L of radon.

Courtesy Radon Environmental Management Corp.

This North American map, created by Radon Environmental Management Corp. in Vancouver, indicates potential radon levels based on location. From a geological perspective, you can see by the higher potential areas where the ice sheets transported uranium-rich soils and how that affects radon potential. Even in low-potential areas, however, individual buildings can still have a radon risk.

How you reduce radon depends on your home’s foundation – basement, slab on grade or crawl space. Methods range from sealing radon entry points to ventilating the gas out through a passive or active system. Systems average $500 to $2,500 (U.S.); some tribes offer programs to reduce or pay the costs.

How much radon is in your home depends on many factors, including where you live. But everywhere has risks and two homes side by side might have quite different levels of radon, which is why testing is important.

Many tribes have vigorous radon programs. The Navajo Nation’s program earned a 2010 Environmental Justice Award from the EPA as an innovative model. That program developed materials in Navajo and brings the message to remote households. Like the Spokane reservation, the Navajo Nation is located on uranium-rich lands and has 520 abandoned uranium mines dating from the 1940s.

The Spokane Tribe has a multi-pronged approach – educating about radon risks, testing in homes and community buildings and finding funding to help remediate radon in buildings with high levels.

The problem with the EPA funding for radon programs, explained Abrahamson-Swan, is that “there’s no money set aside for fixing the problem. … We’re not just finding the problem, we’re trying to go hand in hand finding a solution at the same time.”

Funding may become more of a problem, she knows. Her testimony this spring was to encourage reinstatement of EPA grants cut from the agency’s original 2015 budget. Some money has been restored, but not all.

While testing older buildings for radon levels is important, an equally worthy cause has been creating standards on newly constructed buildings. Radon remediation systems are now a part of new HUD housing, Abrahamson-Swan said. “So far, that was our biggest victory.”

This week, Abrahamson-Swan spoke at the International Radon Symposium put on by the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST) in Charleston, South Carolina, that wraps up today, October 1.

Side note: The National Radon Action month is November in Canada and January in the United States.