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Radon awareness still a challenge

The Post and Courier
Friday, December 5, 2008

Ten experts presented their lives' work to the President's Cancer Panel on Thursday in Charleston, the third of four such public meetings held across the country.

Environmental factors in cancer was this year's panel topic. Presenters strode broadly among pollutants found in the ground, air, water and products we use daily.

Panelists, who listened to the presenters and asked questions, are appointed by and report to the president. Several presenters spoke on radon, a cancer-causing radioactive gas that has largely slipped out of the public's awareness.

Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that occurs naturally in the earth and can be trapped in structures. When people breathe radon, the radioactive gas decays in their lungs, shedding particles that can trigger cancer.

Between 16,000 and 23,000 people are estimated to die annually from lung cancer caused by radon. Between 10 percent and 14 percent of all lung cancer deaths per year may be attributable to radon, said Dr. Jay H. Lubin with the National Cancer Institute.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set an action level for radon of 4 picocuries per liter of air. But that action level is meaningless, several presenters argued. No level of radon is safe, and any action taken to fix a house polluted with radon is voluntary.

New construction can be made radon-resistant and remediation measures for older structures exist, but both are the responsibility of owners. Requiring testing during real estate transactions was suggested by the EPA's Capt. Susan M. Conrath.

Lubin said the burden should not be personal. "We're asking a few to bear a societal burden for all mitigation," he said. Relying on buyers also does nothing to solve the problem of radon in schools and other municipal structures.

The housing boom has created even more houses at risk for radon, said Dr. William Field, professor of occupational and environmental health at the College of Public Health at University of Iowa. Field said the U.S. is worse off now than a decade ago in terms of radon exposure.

While radon is linked to certain geologic features, such as uranium and phosphate, there are no regions of the country considered free of the gas. In South Carolina, "Just about every county has seen some elevated results," said Reginald Massey, former radon contact for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

President's Cancer Panel member Dr. Margaret L. Kripke, from The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, described radon exposure as a public health failure. "Who's responsible for getting the message out?" she asked.

Conrath, of the EPA, took responsibility for awareness efforts, but presenters said voluntary efforts are not enough.

During a public comment period, Dr. James B. Burch, an epidemiologist at the Arnold School of Public Health, urged the panel for a national radon standard that is enforceable.


More highlights from the President's Cancer Panel meeting:

— Cancer risk from air pollution, not including diesel and fine particulate matter, is poorly understood but likely negligible, said Dr. William L. Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

— Not enough is known about risks associated with new, emerging pollutants, such as fire retardants and nanoparticles, which are found in new products such as "wrinkle-free" clothes, he said.

— Also alarming is the concentration of diesel fumes on school buses, he said, and the largely unknown effects of endocrine disrupters, which mimic hormones and are found in plastics and pesticides.

— In water, high levels of arsenic, greater than 100 micrograms per liter, can cause cancer. Levels these high are rarely found in the United States, except for private wells in areas scattered across the country, according to Dr. Kenneth P. Cantor, senior investigator with the National Cancer Institute. More studies need to be done to assess the risk of low levels of arsenic.

— While disinfection of water is one of the great success stories of public health, disinfection byproducts have been linked to bladder cancer, Cantor reported. These chemicals are generally elevated in water systems that use treated surface water sources.

— Environmental factors that may increase risk for breast cancer were also examined by two presenters. A higher risk was noted in women who live with a smoker and those who eat grilled or smoked meat, said Dr. Marilie D. Gammon, professor of epidemiology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

— Dr. Julia G. Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, drew attention to breast cancer risk and ubiquitous endocrine disrupting chemicals, including PCBs used in caulking, paint, flame retardants, electronics, furniture, sunscreen and plastics.

Reach Jill Coley at 937-5719 or jcoley@postandcourier.com.

User photo for: Gloria Linnertz

Thank you Jill for writing the article on the President's Cancer Panel. I wasn't able to attend but wish that I could have and that all of the state legislators and U.S. senators and representatives could have also been in attendance. I am well aware of the expertise of Dr. Bill Field, Dr. Jay Lubin and Capt.Susan Conrath.

Radon-induced lung cancer is entirely preventable. If my husband and I had known that for $1,000 we could have removed up to 99% of the radon in our home we would have. We didn't know that 21,000 people lose their lives to radon-induced lung cancer; we didn't know that there are well over 10 million homes with high levels of radon in our nation; we didn't know that high radon levels can be in any type of home--brick, frame, old, new, with basement or no basement.

The fact is we had been living in our home for 18 years with over four times the EPA action level of radon. There were no laws protecting us from this silent killer--radon. Radon cannot be seen or tasted and it has no odor. The only way to know if you are living with high levels is to test for it. My husband, Joe, died with lung cancer on February 8, 2006. What is the price of life? Why didn't we know? Why were there no laws? How could this happen?

The seat-belt laws in our nation have saved thousands of lives. James Baldwin said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." Our governments--state and federal--need to face the fact that radon gas is present in every state and that it causes lung cancer and kills people.

I urge your readers to petition their state and federal representatives and senators to create laws that will protect the citizens of our nation against radon. Laws requiring the testing of schools, mandating radon tests at the point of sale of a home or before taking occupancy of a new home, and specifying that landlords test property and mitigate if high levels of radon are found will save thousands of lives.

Lung cancer victims have only a 15% five-year survival rate, but the reality is that most are diagnosed at a late stage on only live a few months or weeks. So there are not many lung cancer advocates. Please go to www.cansar.org and read the words and see the faces of some of those who were diagnosed with lung cancer and were living with high levels of radon.

Public radon policy has been insufficient. A change must be made and it remains to us to make the change happen because there are not thousands of lung cancer victims making marches. The fact is they are no longer with us. We must make a difference and let our voices be heard loudly for them!

Thanks for the article,
Gloria Linnertz