It is colorless, odorless and the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. The radioactive gas radon is released as uranium in soil and rocks decays and has been linked to more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the United State each year. But most people are unaware of the dangers radon poses to them and their families.
"It comes from the ground and can be anywhere," said Andrea Jensen with the Utah County Health Department. "Old homes, new homes, small homes or mansions can all have high levels of radon in them."
Radon is non-toxic when outside or in open, well-ventilated places but the gas can seep into homes through cracks in the foundation and get trapped in the enclosed space. The health department says winter months are the best time to test for radon because most people have their windows and doors closed.
As part of National Radon Awareness month, which begins in January, the health department is selling radon test kits for just $10.
"Just $10 can save your life," Jensen said. "Radon is one of those things people don't know about and don't think about."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only smoking causes more lung cancer deaths a year than radon. Dr. Wallace Akerley, director of thoracic oncology at Huntsman Cancer Institute, says lung cancer caused by radon is often not discovered until the cancer is in later stages.
"Non-smokers are typically diagnosed at a higher stage of cancer," Akerley said. "Both the doctor and patient ignore the symptoms. If you are a non-smoker we give you the benefit of the doubt and think it is likely pneumonia before we start testing for cancer."
Akerley also says that testing for radon is a simple but effective way to prevent getting lung cancer.
"The big issue to me is it is fixable," Akerley said. "I do test my house and we should all be doing it."
Testing for radon takes two to three days but requires little effort. The test kit is opened in the lowest occupied level of the home and left for several days before being sealed and sent to the lab. If the test comes back with high levels of radon, there are options for families needing to get rid of the gas. A mitigation system consisting of a pipe running from the foundation up through the ceiling to ventilate the gas can be installed. The system can cost upwards of $1,000 but Jensen says the cost is worth it.
"It is cheaper and less painful than chemotherapy," she said.
The Utah County chapter of Habitat for Humanity also is working to get the word out about radon. Mitigation systems are now being installed in all the Habitat for Humanity Homes built in Utah County.
"It is one of those things you can't see, touch, feel or smell. It is a deadly poison no one is aware of," said Kena Mathews, executive director of Utah County Habitat for Humanity. "One of the things we really focus on is making all of these homes safe and having these systems in your home does that. It is important to keep people safe from radon."
Radon test kits are also available at The Habitat for Humanity Restore for $6.
The EPA recommends people get their homes tested for radon once every two years. According to the EPA's citizen guide to radon, the gas can be found in one home and not in the home next door, meaning it is important to get tested regardless of what neighbors' test results are. Jensen also says businesses and schools should test for radon with the same regularity as homeowners.
Test kits can be picked up at either the Utah County Health Department, 151 S. University Ave. in Provo, or Habitat for Humanity Restore, 340 S. Orem Blvd. in Orem, during regular business hours.