Right around springtime four years ago, what Gail Orcutt thought were allergies turned out to be much worse.
“I found out I had lung cancer,” the Pleasant Hill resident said. “I’ve never smoked a day in my life.”
Her cancer didn’t come from cigarettes. Instead, the culprit was a colorless, odorless gas: radon.
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the nation, claiming roughly 21,000 lives each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Orcutt, a retired teacher and lung-cancer survivor, made it her mission to educate people and raise awareness on the poisonous gas.
Now, after a recurrence of the cancer in August, and only a week out of chemotherapy, she is teaming with an elected official.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, has been spearheading the push to create legislation that would require more testing for radon levels in the state, especially in schools. Braley has advocated in Congress for resources and support.
A recent study found high levels of a cancer-causing radioactive gas in homes throughout a four-county area that includes Sauk County.
Officials say the results of the study, conducted by the South Central Environmental Health Consortium, should convince more people to have their homes tested for radon.
“We just wanted people to know that there are high levels around here,” said Matt Kachel, an environmental health sanitarian with Sauk County who helped implement the study. “We think it’s a valuable thing to get your home tested.”
Radon is an odorless, invisible, and radioactive gas that naturally occurs in soil. It can seep into homes, and exposure to high levels over long periods of time can cause lung cancer.
From November through January, the consortium, which includes Sauk, Columbia, Juneau and Adams counties, provided free entry in a raffle contest to people who tested their homes for radon. An independent laboratory in Texas then analyzed 273 samples.
A Waterdown resident is urging the local school board and provincial government introduce mandatory testing in high risk areas for radon — the second leading cause of lung cancer among Canadians.
A colourless and odourless gas that is naturally produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil, radon can seep through a crack in a building’s foundation.
Robert Graham has been in a two-year long battle with government officials to have testing done at school sites.
“I think the fear is if they test a few of the schools, especially the one-level schools, that if they found that they have high levels that everybody is going to panic,” he said. “It’s not to cause panic it’s just to see are kids still going to schools that may have this radon leakage problem - you don’t know unless you test.”
A grandfather to four children, Graham said the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has so far been mum on whether it will test some of its facilities.
Downers Grove is updating its building code to include new state rules aimed at reducing radon in new construction.
The Village Council recently approved a mandate that all new residences in town must be built with "passive radon resistant construction," in line with a state law passed in June.
Community Development Director Tom Dabareiner said the law was enacted in response to the growing consensus that radon poses significant health risks. The council approved the measure at its April 1 meeting with all in attendance voting in favor. Commissioners Sean P. Durkin and Geoff Neustadt were absent.
"There's a large portion of the state where there is a significant amount of radon that's found in the soil and then a couple of areas where it's medium," Dabareiner said.
Only a test can find it, yet schools go untested
Radon, an invisible killer, has gone undetected in more than half of New York’s school buildings because testing for the naturally occurring gas is not required.
A analysis by Central New York Media Group of the most recent school building condition reports at the state Education Department found the reports indicate that 1,832 school buildings have not been tested for radon.
More than 400 of those buildings are in 34 counties designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having high potential for elevated indoor radon levels, according to the newspaper’s analysis of the condition reports for 3,136 public school buildings outside of New York City.
The presence of untested school buildings in potentially high-radon areas runs counter to long-standing advice of public health experts and the EPA.
With five years to get ready for this deadline, regulators should have been better prepared.
Laws don’t work unless most people comply with them voluntarily. This compliance is helped along by the understanding that violations of the law will be enforced and that the penalties are appropriate.
So, it’s good news that many landlords are trying to follow the law that requires them to test for radon in all buildings with rental units. But it’s not so good to find out that the state has no database of rental properties to know which ones are out of compliance, and that it’s still unclear what agencies will enforce the penalties. It is also not much comfort for tenants to find out that if their apartment is contaminated with radon, they’ll still have to sue the landlord to force remediation.
A scaled-back bill regarding radon testing in Iowa schools passed the whole Iowa House on Tuesday , setting up negotiations between the House and Senate over the issue.
The House has completely rewritten Senate File 366 to direct the state Department of Education to encourage school districts to test for the presence of cancer-causing radon gas in school buildings and to address high concentrations. The bill contains no actual mandate for districts to perform the testing, though, and only requires school officials to notify the department if they have a radon testing and mitigation plan in place or if they plan to adopt such a plan in the future.
Information received by the department will be turned over to the Legislature.
It passed on a 98-1 vote.
Bill sponsor Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley said he’s received a positive response from school superintendents.
Plans to require radon testing in schools statewide were sidelined this week by Republican lawmakers and school officials who worry positive tests would expose districts and the state to serious liability and expensive repairs.
Supporters of the Democratic-led legislation had strong criticism that the bill under consideration now only requires districts to report on whether they've conducted tests and have a plan to reduce radon if it's found.
"Saying we're not even going to look to see if there's a problem, I think, is a stunning dereliction of duty and I'm very disappointed in that," Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, at a news conference Thursday. "If you're going to be responsible you should test and deal with the problems that testing reveals but putting our head in the sand just means more people will die of lung cancer."
An Iowa House turned legislation mandating schools test for radon gas, which is believed to be a leading cause of lung cancer, into a “toothless tiger” Wednesday, according to the bill’s Senate floor manager.
An amendment unanimously approved by the House Local Government Committee makes the bill “virtually meaningless,” Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said.
The amendment stripped provisions that would require schools to perform a short-term test for radon gas at each school by June 30, 2025, and at least once every 10 years thereafter. The Legislative Services Agency estimated that cost to be $1.9 million, which House floor manager Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said was based on “educated guesses.”
McCoy’s bill, approved by the Senate 37-10 a year ago, also proscribed a course of remediation if the tests showed radon gas at or above four picocuries per liter and further testing.
Iowans sounded off on a range of issues under discussion by lawmakers this year for The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll, revealing widely shared views on several matters. Substantial majorities, for instance, support enhanced enforcement of the state’s ban on texting while driving and favor expanded access to state-funded preschool. Iowans are more divided about ending dog racing at casinos in the state.
RESULTS: Seventy-one percent of Iowans favor requiring schools to test for radon and take steps to reduce it if necessary.
ISSUE: Radon, a radioactive gas that occurs naturally in soil, is believed to be the No.2 cause of lung cancer behind smoking. Lawmakers are considering requiring school districts to test their buildings for the gas and to take action to reduce levels in structures with high concentrations.