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'I Was Very Confident In My Ignorance:' Woman Whose Husband Died From Radon-Related Cancer Now Works To Inform Others

'I Was Very Confident In My Ignorance:' Woman Whose Husband Died From Radon-Related Cancer Now Works To Inform Others

Gloria Linnertz had no idea that a silent killer was lurking in her Waterloo home.

Her husband, Joe, went to the doctor in late 2005 because his liver enzymes were elevated. After a series of tests, an oncologist informed the couple that Joe had stage IV lung cancer with only weeks to live.

“When we asked the oncologist what could have caused Joe’s cancer, he said known causes of lung cancer are tobacco and radon gas. My husband hadn’t smoked in 27 years and led a healthy lifestyle,” Linnertz said.

But their home harbored dangerous levels of radon, which Linnertz maintains was responsible for her husband’s death.

“We had no idea that we were living with over four times the EPA radon action level in our home for 18 years. I didn’t know that until one month after Joe’s death. He died six weeks after he was diagnosed,” she said. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from radioactive decay in the soil. The gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless.

When Linnertz had their home tested for radon, the results came back at 11.2 and 17.6 picocuries per liter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners take action if the level is found to be above 4 picocuries per liter.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer overall. The EPA reports that radon causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Nearly 3,000 of those deaths occur in people who have never picked up a cigarette. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency is trying to bring more awareness to the issue.

Agency health physicist Patrick Daniels said Illinois residents may have an even higher potential risk.

“Illinois has the fourth highest radon risk nationally. We estimate that about 1,160 Illinois citizens will get radon-related lung cancer annually. The tragedy with that is only about 15 percent of lung cancer patients survive five years. It only has about a five-year survival rate,” Daniels said.

The even greater tragedy is, it can usually be prevented. Joe Linnertz mentioned to his wife that they should get their home tested some years before his death.

“I said no. Our house is only 20 years old and we have a very tight basement. I was very confident in my ignorance. I really knew nothing about radon," she said. "We were living with high levels and because of my ignorance we didn’t test.”

The only way to know if elevated levels of radon gas exist in a home is to test for it.

Radon gets sucked into the home due to the difference in atmospheric pressure between the air inside and the air outside. The gas enters the home through any gap or crack it can find.

“Our homes are literally acting like vacuum sweepers on the soil, drawing the radon gas in,” Daniels said.

Radon gas comes from the decay of the uranium concentration in the soil left by the glacial till brought to the Illinois area during the last ice age, 13,000 years ago.

“To measure radon concentrations, a homeowner really has two choices. They can hire someone who is licensed in the state of Illinois to do that work for them, or they can purchase a low-cost test kit,” Daniels said.

A self-test kit can be purchased online or at a local hardware store and costs anywhere from $30 to $40 after lab and processing fees.

“It’s cheap and it’s easy to do your own,” said Rich Whisler, co-owner of Accurate Radon, a company based in suburban West Chicago that handles gas and water problems in homes.

He strongly recommends anyone living on the first three levels of a condominium, apartment building or house test their living space. Once a home is found to have radon levels of four picocuries per liter or more, Whisler suggests the owner install a mitigation system.

“It’s very similar to a central vacuum system. The difference is it’s vacuuming the earth under the floor instead of on the floor and it’s running all the time,” he said.

The system consists of pipes and a fan that vents the gas from underneath the home and expels it through the roof into the atmosphere.

“What we’ve done is, really, changed the air pressure in a home. Homes tend to operate at a negative pressure,” Whisler said. “We are removing enough air from the soil that the air pressure below the floor is now less than the air pressure in the home. That basically stops the gas from coming in.”

Mitigation systems can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000, but Gloria Linnertz said the cost is worth it.

“It will cost a little money but what’s $1,000-$1,500 when you’re talking about saving someone’s life,” she said.

Radon, one doctor explained, works the same way as more traditionally understood cancer-causing agents.

“Radon is a radioactive gas that emits what we call ionizing radiation,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, “Ionizing radiation disrupts the basic genetic material of cells. It’s really how most things cause cancer.”

Once the genetic material of the cell is disrupted, the body responds. It can destroy the cell or repair it or, as Edelman said, sometimes the cells don’t die. They become autonomous. An autonomous cell divides, grows and is not responsive to the normal controls of the body.

“That’s what we call cancer,” Edelman said. “It’s a statistical thing, Most of the time it doesn’t happen. But the more exposure you get, the more likely you are to have it.”

Gloria is now an active member of Cancer Survivors Against Radon, a support group for radon-related lung cancer victims and their family members. She hopes to educate others on the risks of radon and work to pass legislation so no one is caught unaware.

“I know people all over the nation that have been battling lung cancer and it’s taken their life and they didn’t know they were living with high levels of radon until after the diagnosis,” said Gloria, “Many of them are much younger than Joe.”

To view this article, visit http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=177407.