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Radon: Could a Silent Killer be Lurking?

Radon: Could a Silent Killer be Lurking?

Kaye Ranger-Lefler was in perfect health until last fall, when episodes of lower back pain began regularly striking her a few hours after mealtime.

The pain became so intense the 65-year-old Sioux City woman could hardly eat. She lost weight and struggled to fall asleep while sitting up. It hurt too much to lie down in her bed.

When Ranger-Lefler was finally diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, over four months after her pain began, she was in shock.

How could a woman who had never smoked develop lung cancer?

A radioactive gas known as radon could be the answer.

Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking and the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon exposure causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year in the United States. About 2,900 of these deaths occur among people who have never smoked.

"(My doctor) said I could be in a room 24/7 with people smoking and I wouldn't have gotten this cancer," Ranger-Lefler said as she sat on a floral upholstered couch in the living room of her Morningside home clutching a bright green folder filled with medical documents.

Ranger-Lefler’s husband, Willy Lefler, seated next to her, teared up and shook his head.

"She shouldn't have gotten it. She's so healthy and has always done what she was supposed to. This is not what we had thought was going to happen."

People breathe radon in every day, usually at low levels. When radon enters homes through cracks in floors, walls and foundations it can accumulate to levels that increase the risk of lung cancer.

CANCER-CAUSING?

Cortisone injections and a gallbladder surgery in February didn't relieve Ranger-Lefler's back pain. She was so weak that she became nearly bedridden.

A MRI two months after her gallbladder surgery revealed a tumor on her T11 vertebrae, the second to last vertebrae in the middle of her back. The tumor was biopsied and determined to be cancerous.

Since lung cancer often spreads to the bones, Ranger-Lefler said her doctor looked at her lung and discovered a tumor. Tumors were also found on her rib and femur.

She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to bone cancer.

Ranger-Lefler wasn't aware of radon and its connection to lung cancer until she received a phone call from a June E. Nylen Cancer Center representative, who is raising awareness about the presence of radon in Siouxland area homes.

The possibility that radon might be lurking in the white, ranch-style home where they have lived for 17 years has rattled Ranger-Lefler and her husband Willy Lefler's nerves.

After the Cancer Center contacted the Leflers, the couple immediately purchased a radon home test kit from the Siouxland District Health Department.

Willy Lefler said he placed two small bottles from the kit in the basement living area for four days, sealed the bottles up and then mailed them to a laboratory.

"We're nervous because of the fact that I don't know what we're going to do," he said. "Her body is fighting really hard right now."

Questioning the reliability of the home test kit, the Leflers decided to follow up with a certified home inspector before the results even arrived.

The inspector found that the radon level in the Leflers' home was 5.8 pCi/L or picocuries per liter. The EPA recommends that corrective action be taken on radon levels above 4.0 pCi/L.

The Leflers haven't decided whether they will have a radon mitigation system installed in their home.

SILENT KILLER

Radon leaches out from the soil and rock into homes and buildings in multiple ways: through cracks, sump pits, around pipes or conduit openings, between floor and wall joints in a basement and from negative pressure drawing the gas in.

Once inside, radon becomes trapped and accumulates in the lowest level of the home, usually a basement.

Gregg Galloway, a supervising pathologist at Mercy Medical Center, said radon's heavy charged particles adhere to other matter such as clothing and dust particles. Breathing in these charged particles over a long period of time, he said, can cause lung cancer.

Galloway explained that the charged particles attach to the bronchi, breathing tubes in the surface of the lungs. As the particles decay, they produce radiation that damages lung cell DNA.

"If the DNA of those cells is damaged, then at some point in time, many years later, those cells grow in abnormally and it causes lung cancer," he said.

Ranger-Lefler doesn't wheeze or cough. Until the lung cancer spread to her spine, she said she had no symptoms.

Pathologists, Galloway said, cannot determine through medical testing whether radon exposure caused an individual's lung cancer.

"Most of the people, where they got their radon exposure is not where they're living now, and the exposure that caused this happened many, many years ago," he said. "There's no test on the lung that can tell us this was from radon exposure."

Not everyone who resides in a home with elevated levels of radon will develop lung cancer, according to Galloway.

He said the risk for developing lung cancer from radon exposure is based on three things: age of exposure, length of exposure and the concentration of radon gas in the home.

"It doesn't mean that you will get cancer, it just means that your relative risk goes up," he said. "It really depends on the level of exposure and the length of exposure and the other things that you do later on with your health.”

Children, Galloway said, are at greater risk of developing radon-associated lung cancer later on in life because they frequent basement playrooms and TV rooms.

"They tend to take in more air for their size, and they breathe much more frequently than adults," he said. "They have a greater risk of breathing in more particles that attach to a larger area of lung tissue and cause damage."

Smoking, Galloway said, poses another risk in the development of radon-associated lung cancer. He said people who smoke and are exposed to significant amounts of radon are 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer.

How "tight" a home is can also make a difference when it comes to the long-term effects of radon exposure, according to Galloway.

In energy-efficient homes, air conditioning and heating systems recycle air, windows are sealed and walls are well-insulated. Galloway said this creates the perfect environment for radon gas to become trapped and collect.

"The nature of how we're making good, ecological houses raises the risk of radon if there is some increased radon level in our soil next to our houses," he said. "We're not ventilating our houses as much as we used to."

Willy Lefler said his basement consists of an 800 square-foot apartment, half bathroom, a laundry room and a storage area.

He said that the basement is in "good shape" and that there are no cracks in the walls or the foundation.

"We had it inspected when we bought it," he said. "Everybody is amazed at how well the house is built and insulated."

Other than doing laundry, Ranger-Lefler said she has spent little time in her basement.

COPING WITH CANCER

The lung cancer diagnosis turned Ranger-Lefler's world upside down.

The mother of three and grandmother of eight has been active all of her life. She regularly rode her bike to Wilson Trailer, where she worked for 35 years supervising drafters in the grain engineering department, and briskly walked daily.

Now Ranger-Lefler can't drive or go anywhere on her own. She wears a special back brace to keep her spine in line and prevent the tumor on her T11 vertebrae from shifting. She takes a host of narcotic pain relievers to dull the pain, including Oxycontin, hydrocodone and morphine sulfate.

"When I first found out, I felt like Alice in Wonderland," Ranger-Lefler recalled. "I felt like I fell in the rabbit hole and I'm just going along in slow motion."

Ranger-Lefler would not talk about her condition with her husband at first, which frustrated Willy Lefler. They have since discussed it and lean on each other for support.

"My husband is my wonderful caregiver and we are both spiritually, emotionally and physically supportive of each other and feel so blessed to have each other," Ranger-Lefler said.

Ranger-Lefler underwent radiation treatments immediately after she was diagnosed with cancer and she is currently taking chemotherapy pills. A PET scan earlier this month, she said, failed to detect the presence of any new tumors.

No matter how much time they have left together, the Leflers are moving forward with their lives.

Ranger-Lefler works on her crafts, remains active in her women's church group and makes the six-hour trip to Kirksville, Mo., with her husband to see their grandson play high school football.

"We both know what we're up against," Willy Lefler said. "We know that she's doing everything that she's supposed to do. We're going to keep plugging along."

Read more here: http://siouxcityjournal.com/lifestyles/local/radon-could-a-silent-killer-be-lurking/article_1d888301-5254-5fa6-8f1d-f8f158e89bf1.html?comment_form=true