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Homes in La Plata County have 50-50 chance for unsafe levels of radon

Health officials try to make it easy for residents to test homes

Katherine Burgess lived for 14 years in her home in east Durango when she finally decided to test for radon.

Like many residents in Colorado, Burgess knew that radon levels in homes throughout the state have a fair chance of exceeding health and safety thresholds set by the federal government. Over the years, she looked into what it would take to test her home, but life carried on, and she never got around to it.

That is, until this year, when she attended a workshop hosted by San Juan Basin Public Health to learn how to use a take-home radon testing kit. The following weekend, she set it up in her home, and a few days later, she sent the kit to a lab.

"We just got the results," Burgess said. "And it does appear we have a problem."

If you live in La Plata County, there's a 50 percent chance your home has radon levels that exceed health and safety standards.

But historically, it has been a challenge for local health officials to get residents to be proactive about the issue.

"I think there's a lot of misinformation on radon," said Brian Devine, air and water quality program manager for San Juan Basin Public Health. "But mitigating for radon can literally save your life, and a lot of times, it can cost significantly less money than replacing your roof."

Brain DeVine, water and air quality program manager for San Juan Basin Health, said there's a lot of misinformation out there about radon. Health officials are trying to get residents to be proactive in testing their homes for elevated levels.

Because of Colorado's natural geological makeup, the state is more prone to having homes or workplaces with high levels of radon inside - for instance, nearly every county in the state rates above the safety threshold based on 12 years' worth of data testing homes and offices.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommend some form of mitigation when levels of radon are found above 4 picoCuries per liter, pCi/L.

For homes in La Plata County, the average measurement of radon was about 5.75 pCi/L, based on 875 homes tested over 12 years. The highest recorded level during that time period was 325 pCi/L.

"It's not like a fast-acting poison," Devine said of the health risks of exposure to radon. "But the more you inhale over a longer period of time, the more radiation gets inside your lungs."

Radon is colorless, odorless and has no taste. And, it doesn't cause short-term symptoms of illness.

Instead, when a person is exposed to radon over many years, it can build up and lead to lung cancer.

Health officials say radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., with estimates that about 21,000 lung cancer deaths can be attributed to radon exposure a year.

And the biggest risk of exposure is at home or in the workplace. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas from the breakdown of uranium that moves up from the soil into the atmosphere. If a home or office sits on an area in radon's path to the air, it can become trapped in the building.

John Wells with the Wells Group, a real estate firm in Durango, said people selling their homes or real estate agents aren't required to disclose whether radon is present in a house. But, Wells said, most buyers - he estimated about 95 percent - are aware of the problem and will have the home tested before purchasing.

But even if radon comes back at levels above the safety standard, Wells said it is usually not a deterrent to buyers.

"To not buy a house that has radon is highly unlikely," Wells said, "because it's pretty easy to address."

Both the city of Durango and La Plata County require new homes to have the ability to have a radon mitigation system installed. It's hard to detect if a home will have radon problems once a structure is built, so it makes sense to require new homes to have the ability to install a system to mitigate for radon if necessary, said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County's Building Department.

"We didn't want to require a complete installation on every house because there's no sense in wasting money," Knowlton said. "But it's hard and expensive to put in a system after a house is constructed. This way, we require a pre-abatement system, so once people live in it and find radon, the system is there."

San Juan Basin Public Health informational video on the risks of radon.

Devine said San Juan Basin Public Health tries to make it as convenient as possible for people to test their homes or workplace by holding workshops on how to use kits and giving out the kits for free. Postage is included to send the kit to a lab, and results usually come back in a week or so.

"We want to get rid of all the barriers that stand in between people and understanding how high their risk is," he said.

Kits are best placed in the lowest living area of a home, with winter being the best time to test, as all the windows and doors are shut, which represent a better chance to capture radon.

San Juan Basin Public Health does everything it can to make testing for radon easy for residents. Kits are free, postage is included and results are generally made available within a week or so.

Mitigation measures are on a case-by-case basis, ranging from small fixes to larger projects that can cost anywhere from $800 to $3,000, according to state records. There are also a number of professional radon mitigation companies that residents can consult for treatment options.

In Burgess' case, results came back at 13.6 pCi/L. She said her family built the home nearly 15 years ago, digging the foundation into the earth, which could be responsible for the elevated levels.

She said testing her home for radon was an easier process than she thought it would be. She'd like to conduct a follow-up test before taking any action on mitigation.

"It was worth the time and effort, which was minimal, because now we can make informed decisions," Burgess said. "Forewarned is forearmed."


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