Salt Lake City-County Health Department Director Dr. Harry L. Gibbons, said recent warnings about the the potential dangers from seeping radon gas are overblown and thinks little danger is actually posed.
Dr. Vernon Houk, the U.S. assistant surgeon general, said Monday that nationally as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths are caused each year by colorless, odorless gas released by underground uranium deposits. Houk said the gas, given off naturally, seeps into buildings and can accumulate in basements and other rooms with poor ventilation, or can seep into basements through cracks in their cement slab floors.But Gibbons doesn't feel there's a problem.
"We've had a real problem with radon here some years ago, because of all the Vitro tailings," Gibbons said. A million tons of radioactive waste had to be deposited in the West Desert, some of it dug from beneath homes and commercial buildings where it was used as construction fill.
The City-County Health Department checked many people exposed to this radon, including doing bronchial washings - designed to test the lung lining for bronchial abnormalities.
"We didn't find a single case . . . even with the smokers," Gibbons said. "It's my opinion that the radon bit was extensively exaggerated by the EPA."
Meanwhile, local experts warned Utahns who are worried about this week's announcement by federal officials concerning radon gas to beware of frauds.
Preliminary results of a survey of the state's homes by the Utah Health Department suggest that between 15 percent and 20 percent may exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's radon guidelines. The survey was begun last October and is due to be complete next month.
Larry F. Anderson, director of the Utah Bureau of Radiation Control, said anyone who is concerned about radon contamination should have his home monitored to find out the amount of radioactivity.
He said various kits are sold to monitor radon. Some of them are approved, some of them are not. As for commercial enterprises offering to check for radon, people should be careful about who they consult. "You have the whole range, from skilled professionals down to people who are trying to make a quick buck," Anderson said.
The best sort of kits are those with strips of material, which can be hung in the basement for a year, he said. They are the "only definitive way of doing it."
Although quicker, charcoal canisters are subject to fluctuations and can result in false readings as radon levels can change hourly and with the seasons and weather conditions.
Gary M. Sandquist, director of nuclear engineering programs at the University of Utah, said sealing cracks in the basement and painting exposed concrete walls and floors can dramatically reduce the seepage of radon gas into the home.
He knows of a case where a customer bought an expensive radon-shield paint for the basement. But the paint was probably ordinary mismatched paint purchased in bulk from a hardware store, he said, noting that any paint will act as a barrier to radon.
Some folks spend a hundred dollars or more to buy charcoal cartridges; charcoal is worth only several dollars. Companies promise to place the cartridge in the home, then remove them and test for radon content. But Sandquist said the equipment needed to test the cartridge costs about $65,000, raising questions about how small local companies can could afford such expensive test equipment.
Sandquist is concerned news about radon will prompt illegitimate businesses to take advantage of the scare by selling testing services that don't work.
Anderson said the first line of defense against radon should be to seal all of the joints in the basement and floor. If the radon concentrations are high enough, a more sophisticated approach is called for.
Power ventilating beneath the basement floor - done by drilling and installing specially designed equipment - works well in areas of higher concentration, Anderson said.
Anderson said elevated radon levels seems to be a statewide phenomenon.
Is there any danger? "I think that's unknown," he said. "I don't think it's fully documented even at the EPA that there's a problem. It's just that it's suspected and there's no way of proving that there isn't."
Humans have been exposed to radon since they first sought shelter in caves. "The difference is that man's enclosures have changed over time," Anderson said.
Homes and offices are better insulated than ever, and good insulation tends to trap the radioactive gas.
"Studies of people who have been exposed to high concentrations of radon, primarily uranium miners in the Western United States, seem to indicate that there is a higher concentration of lung cancers," Anderson said.
But the studies are imperfect because most of these miners are smokers. It becomes "very difficult to make heads or tails" of the results, because of this.
Still, Anderson said, there is sufficient evidence that radon is dangerous to make people cautious.
In fact, some officials say they wouldn't buy a home or move into one without knowing the radon content.