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Radon is a common Utah house guest

30% of homes are at high risk; exposure may cause lung cancer

Pamela Petranovich never considered her Willowcreek home on Salt Lake's east side could be contaminated with radon gas, a problem she associated with soil on the East Coast.

But when Petranovich went to sell her house, a radon test showed her home had three times the maximum amount of radon accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Sandy home she wanted to buy had more than that.

"We were definitely surprised because we didn't know this was an issue in Utah," she said. "Ignorance is bliss if you don't know it's there. You can't taste it, you can't smell it, you just absolutely have no idea you have a problem."

After doing a little research on radon and finding it is the No. 2 cause of lung cancer next to smoking, Petranovich decided to shell out $1,700 to funnel the gas out of her home and requested a similar system be put in place in the new home she purchased in Sandy.

The piping reduced the level of radon to low levels, but left Petranovich shaken by the fact that she never knew the contaminants were in her home of seven years and that she lived in one of the highest risk areas for toxic radon levels.

"I didn't even think about asking those types of questions here in Utah," she said. "We felt that we needed to do something about it because of long-term health issues and you probably need to fix it if you ever want to sell the house in the future."

Petranovich's surprise was not new for Dave Evans, owner of HomeTek home inspections, who installed the piping system to suck the radon from Petranovich's home. Many Salt Lake County residents are not aware of the prevalence of indoor radon contamination, he said, even though the state's Department of Environmental Quality has identified several high-risk areas.

"The awareness level is in its infant stage. Utahns have two factors: They're not educated on it and once they hear about it, they want to just ignore it," Evans said. "They want to dispel it as untrue. It's out of sight, out of mind, because it's invisible."

Overall, Utah and Salt Lake counties fall in the medium-risk category for indoor radon, which is a naturally occurring gas produced from the decay of uranium in soil. The odorless gas usually enters homes via foundation cracks and can cause lung damage when inhaled, according to the EPA.

Utah's medium risk falls in a category defined by the EPA of about 2-4 picoCurries per liter of air. The government group recommends mitigation for anything above 4 picoCurries. Petronavich's home metered at about 13 picoCurries and Evans routinely treats homes with levels in the 20s.

Roughly 30 percent of Utah homes have a high risk of radon contamination, according to Philip Griffin at the Indoor Radon Program for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. In Salt Lake County, the areas with highest indoor radon risk include the western bench, as well as the foothill area in Sandy.

The granular soil in Sandy mixed with decaying uranium in granite deposits make Sandy one of the highest-risk areas, Griffith said, because the gas is not only present, but easily escapes through the loose soil.

The lack of information or awareness about radon surprised Mary Pat Laslie, who moved to Utah from Maryland, where home inspections are required to include a radon test.

Laslie's home in Holladay was only slightly above EPA-recommended levels for radon, but she wasn't going to take any risks. Laslie paid about $2,000 to install a piping system that included drilling a hole thorough the cement floor of her home and channelling radon that collected in the ground through her home and out her roof. A 24-hour fan pulls the air through her home.

"Why would you take a chance? I don't smoke, I don't want to die of lung cancer," Laslie said.

Laslie especially wanted to remediate her home because she has a basement, which generally has higher levels of radon.

The state's radon program is trying to get the word out, Griffin said, by handing out information kits to new mothers at IHC hospitals and helping residents test for radon.

Lagging funds, however, have stopped the department from pursuing any mass public-information campaign, he added. High radon levels do have to be listed on a homeowner's disclosure if a test has been performed.

"A lot of people are coming from back East and there's a lot more awareness of it there. They come here and all of a sudden people have never heard of it and never tested," Griffin said.

Getting people to test is also difficult, he said, because individual homes can't be regulated like outdoor air quality. In addition, radon contamination doesn't trigger any short-term symptoms or illnesses that would make homeowners worry, he said.

Griffin added that a key goal of the radon program is to let homeowners know that high radon doesn't mean they won't be able sell their house or it will lose value. Mitigation techniques like piping can fix the problem permanently, he said.

"Even if you have major problem, it can be fixed. One thing that we stress with people is that it doesn't have to be a deal breaker," he said.