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Steele County Deals With Radon Problem

A dangerous gas is seeping into homes throughout Steele County — a gas that carries adverse health effects — and the homeowners may not be aware of it.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, high levels of radon — an odorless, tasteless and invisible gas that has been known to cause lung cancer — are present in 67 percent of the homes in Steele County.

Two-thirds of the homes in Steele County have levels of at least 4 picocuries per liter. A picocurie is one-trillionth of a curie, an international unit of measurement for radioactivity. Dan Tranter, supervisor of the Indoor Air Unit at the state’s health department, said radon poses a risk to those living in high concentrations.

“The primary and really only concern — and it’s a significant one — is that radon causes lung cancer,” Tranter said. “It’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and the leading cause in non-smokers. It’s estimated to cause 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States.”

But Steele County isn’t the only county in the region with high levels of radon in homes. In Rice County, 58 percent of homes have levels of at least 4 picocuries per liter. In Dodge and Waseca counties, that figure is 67 percent and 69 percent, respectively. Freeborn County has one of the highest instances in south-central Minnesota, with 72 percent of homes having action-level radon readings.

The standard of 4 picocuries per liter is set as the level to take action by the Environmental Protection Agency, though Tranter said levels approaching 4 picocuries per liter doesn’t necessarily mean a home is safe.

Minnesota has some of the highest radon levels in the country, Tranter said.

Radon is found in soil and has higher concentrations in areas that are prone to longer winters and have a changing climate. There is a natural occurrence of uranium and radium found in soil, which breaks down and turns into radon.

“It floats around in the soil and then it gets sucked into our homes,” Tranter said. “Our homes suck it out of the soil, especially in the winter time when we’re heating our homes and that warm air is rising. When that happens, the air needs to get replaced. That either comes from the exterior, the outdoor air, or it comes from the soil. Most homes have a little bit of both.”

Steve Roslansky was having a radon-mitigation system installed at his home in Owatonna last week. After seeing something in a newsletter, he received a free test kit from Steele County and tested his home twice for radon. During two tests, one last summer and one over the winter, he found levels of 7 picocuries per liter and 11 picocuries per liter, both well above the recommended action levels by the EPA.

Roslansky said he was surprised by the levels.

“We built the home in 2000,” Roslansky said. “When our grandchildren and kids visit us, they stay in that lower level (of the home).”

After seeing the two readings, Roslansky contracted with Dean Kirchner of Kirchner Siding and Windows, who is a licensed inspector for radon, to install a radon mitigation system in his home. When Kirchner sealed the home to conduct his own tests, he found the average radon levels in the home were 21 picocuries per liter.

Roslansky is not alone in facing high levels of radon. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, only 16 percent of homes in Steele County have radon levels below 2 picocuries per liter. Kirchner said he’s installed systems in other homes where his tests showed levels were above 50 picocuries per liter.

Kirchner and his crew drill through the foundation in basements to install suction points that will draw radon up through installed tubing and blow the gas out into the air through the use of a fan.

“It gathers the gas up from underneath the concrete slab before it gets into the house, sucks it up into the pipe and then it’s vented out passed the roofline and gets dispersed into the air,” Kirchner said, adding that once in the air, the gas is dispersed to a concentration below hazardous levels. “Once it gets outside, it gets to 1.3 picocuries per liter.”

Once a system is installed, Kirchner said on average it will bring levels in homes down to 2 picocuries per liter, though he has had cases where the figure has dropped to well below that.

Since 2009, building codes have required the installation of a passive radon mitigation system within newly built homes, meaning the tubing is connected in the floor, but no fan is required to be present. New legislation that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, will require homeowners who are selling their homes to notify buyers of the radon inspection history of the property.

Kirchner said that sitting at high levels of radon for six to eight hours is the same as smoking half a pack of cigarettes as far the gas’ effect on the lungs. Roslansky says he spends a lot of time in the lower level of his home, where he has an exercise area and spends time watching television. He said he knew he had to take action when he saw how high the levels were.

“Something had to be done,” Roslansky said. “If the numbers were correct on the instances of lung cancer, it was a no-brainer. We needed to take care of it.”

Anyone interested in doing a short-term check of their home, which takes between two and seven days, can get a free home test kit from the Steele County Environmental Services office, located at the county’s main administration building on Florence Avenue. Tranter encouraged people to test their homes to find out the radon levels.

“It’s very important because it’s such a significant cause of lung cancer,” Tranter said. “In my opinion, radon is the most under-appreciated environmental risk that we face. We spend a lot of money on a lot of other things to make our lives and our families safe. We should be putting radon at the top of our list to create a healthy home environment and significantly reduce our risk of lung cancer.”

Read more here: http://www.southernminn.com/owatonna_peoples_press/news/article_54152cea-5c3f-5884-9836-5b47d4e30c87.html