[Masthead] Light Rain ~ 43°F  
High: 53°F ~ Low: 43°F
Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cancer-causing radon escapes legislative attention

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gail Orcutt's only symptom was an occasional cough. Doctors eventually diagnosed lung cancer in the non-smoker, and removed her lung. Today, she is a rare survivor of what is suspected to be radon-induced cancer caused by exposure in her home, and advocated for more awareness of the issue.
Radon, typically found in the basement of a house, kills 400 Iowans a year, but the state health department cannot carry out a state law designed to help protect residents from the deadly gas because it doesn't have any staff to do so.

Hundreds of radon mitigation systems that are supposed to funnel toxic gas out of basements are not getting tested and could be defective.

Classified as a class A carcinogen like arsenic and asbestos, the colorless and odorless gas causes lung cancer when radon decay particles attach to dust and are breathed into the lungs and damage the DNA, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The law says we're supposed to do inspections but we can't because we don't have the funds to do it," said Rick Welke, radon program manager at the Iowa Department of Public Health. "There's people installing 200 systems a year, and they've never been inspected."

How serious is the problem?

"It's very prevalent in the Unites States, and of the U.S., Iowa is in the highest range for radon levels," says Kim Johnson, Environmental Health Director for Buena Vista County. "In Iowa, northwest Iowa is the highest."

Solid numbers are hard to come by, and there is a limited database of completed tests to go on, but one website indicates that the average indoor radon level in BV County homes tested with Air Chek Inc. equipment is 9.3 pCi/liter, well above the 4 pCi level that the EPA suggests for taking action. The website reports that 70 percent of the tests done in the county are at 4 pCi or above.

"I know we have had houses here with test result levels in the hundreds," Johnson says. "And don't go by your neighbors - two houses right next to each other may test out completely different."

The county environmental office makes test kits available for $7. A homeowner puts the test in the lowest lived-in level of their home for 3-7 days, then sends it in for a reading. For privacy, results are mailed to the homeowner only.

Often problem level radon locally can be dealt with by "tightening up a home," Johnson says - such as repairing cracks in a basement floor or foundation and covering holes or floor drains - especially those that lead to sump pumps.

"Quite a few people locally have tested now," she said. "The problem is enough that for seven bucks, if it were me, I'd do the test."

Dr. Bill Field, a world-renowned radon expert and professor at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, says radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in individuals who have never smoked. It is also the seventh leading cause of cancer death overall.

When people contract radon-induced lung cancer they rarely survive. Gail Orcutt is one of the few who did.

"It seems like people think radon is something they can choose to believe," said Orcutt. "I keep looking for someone like me, so I'd have someone to visit with." But she's the only radon cancer survivor she knows of in Iowa.

Orcutt was diagnosed with lung cancer in May of 2010 after an unceasing cough prompted doctors to give her a chest X-ray. She had her office and family room in the basement of their 1974 home in Pleasant Hill. She spent a lot of time in her split foyer basement where the computer was. She says a lot of people think basements with outside-access are an excuse not to test.

Mark Lambert, an administrative judge in Polk City, lost his wife Debra Fincham, a non-smoker, in January to what he believes was radon-induced lung cancer.

"She went through chemo and radiation, but it was too far advanced to do surgery," said Lambert, who has two young daughters. "That's the thing about lung cancer, you often don't have symptoms until it's too far along."

Debra was a physician's assistant and tested both of their houses for radon, but her doctors said the exposure had happened possibly sometime in her twenties.

Field explained that while lung cancer generally does not develop until after age 40, radon can cause damage in the cells that manifest as cancer later in life.

Soon to be an unfunded mandate?

Iowa law requires that the department of public health inspect installed mitigation systems to make sure they are up to EPA code. However, the law is rarely upheld.

"To be honest, every inspector knows you could find a problem in just about every system you see," Welke said.

EPA code says that once a radon mitigation system is installed, the system should be checked no later than 30 days after installation, and sometimes that job is left for the untrained homeowner.

Mitigation is a bustling business, and the health department would like to use money generated from teaching and licensing radon specialists. The number of people getting licensed in Iowa has gone up from 30 to over 200 since 2000. That's a potential $154,855 just from licensing fees in 2011 that could have paid for at least two inspectors' salaries, Welke said.

Tony Carson of Radon Solutions of Iowa says he moved to the state from Indiana just to start a radon mitigation business. "Iowa's the worst state for it [radon]," he said.

In the last Iowa legislative session, four different lawmakers tried to introduce comprehensive radon reform, but all the bills failed.

Rep. Dan Kelley, D-Newton, wanted a bill that would mandate radon-resistant new construction. Kelley, a realtor by trade, says he will resubmit his bill next session.

"I believe radon tests should be part of a home inspection, whether someone is buying, selling or lived in the home for many years," he said

Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, isn't convinced radon is a problem.

"Just because the EPA says something doesn't mean it's backed by facts," he said. "I've looked at all kinds of evidence of global warming and none of it has taken place in the last ten years." But what would convince him, he says, is scientific evidence that radon causes lung cancer.

"It's a problem with a lot of things we do. It's propelled by junk science and rumor and innuendo rather than solid scientific evidence," he said. He hadn't yet seen Field's study.

Right now, neither testing nor radon mitigation systems are obligatory, but Iowa Code does require realtors to provide a radon fact sheet for buyers must read and sign.

The IDPH, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association, and the Surgeon General recommend radon testing all new and existing
homes for radon in Iowa before they change hands.

There's already a lack of funding to carry out what state law mandates. One option to fill the funding hole is to recycle fees generated from licensing radon contractors back into the radon program.

"The program isn't able to expand, it can hardly do what it's supposed to do in the first place," Welke said. He says the program does generate money from fees, but it doesn't come back to the department so it can perform inspections. "They [government] really aren't following their own law."

Bob Dye, EPA radiation program manager for region seven, said if the budget passes it will do away with all federal radon grants to states.

Right now, the annual State Indoor Radon Grant is the only thing that funds the program, most of which goes to three staff members, the American Lung Association activities and mini-grants to counties. But nothing is used for inspections.

Welke's department could be saved if legislators decide to recycle the nearly $200,000 generated annually from licensing fees back into the program. Right now, that money goes into the state general fund where the department can't touch it.

Welke says it would be impossible to inspect the almost 3,000 systems installed a year, but the department should hire at least two inspectors to oversee the 74 licensed mitigation specialists in the state.

The Iowa Legislature passed the law setting up the radon program and mandating inspections in 1987, but did not appropriate funds to implement the inspections.

Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, tried to remedy that with a bill earlier this year. "That bill's dead. It's deader than dead. It's decomposing," he said, but he wants to reintroduce it again next year.

"Iowa's law is pretty pathetic," said Peggy Huppert, Iowa director of government relations at American Cancer Society. However, she added that "There's no national radon resource center or state that has a model radon law."

Kressig hadn't heard that there is a lack of inspectors in the department. "It's very frustrating to me. If he [Welke] would have been able to tell me that this is an issue now, I could have addressed it."

Kressig said he will put in a request at the state level this week to look at the lack of inspectors in Welke's department. "We should do a little research on our own," he said.

Welke said his concerns are seemingly unheard by government officials. "I can't lobby, they have to come to me. That's the problem, they don't usually come to the right people."

Huppert blames the new administration at the public health department. She says the director does not allow her staff to go to the capitol without permission.

"It's a problem when you have a public health department where the head doesn't think they should promote health," she said.

Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, says there is no such policy that prohibits anyone from speaking to legislators or the press. But, staff must fill out a form explaining what they said and to whom.

"That's not what I'm being told," Welke said. "To be honest they're very strict on that. We were never able to talk to the legislature. Legislators can call us, but we can't initiate it."

Not enough training

Welke says apart from funding difficulties, the standards are lax when it comes to training new radon mitigation specialists.

"I don't think the exam for mitigation is hard enough and the [course] should be twice as long. I don't think the people get what they really should in three-and-a-half days of training," said Welke, who runs the licensing course held twice a year in Des Moines.

The exam is called the Radon Contractors Proficiency Examination. It is a certification program administered by the National Environmental Health Association.

Dean Berchenbriter is a licensed specialist in radon mitigation and testing. He says he installs around 200 systems per year.

"I've never had anybody inspect my system except the person who's hiring me to do the work," he said.

He took the test in Columbus, Ohio, instead of waiting for the next round of courses in Iowa. "It wasn't an easy test," he said. Berchenbriter has a geology background, but he says most of the people in his class were in the home remodeling business.

Fred Dowie of Autum Ridge Development automatically adds the piping for a mitigation system on every new home he builds. (see graphic) He started doing it seven years ago when he was looking to build a personal home and ran across information about radon.

"I put in a system no matter what," he said. "I couldn't live with the thought of my grandkids playing in a place full of radon gas that causes lung cancer, and I can't live with the thought of someone else's kids living with that either."

It's easier and cheaper to put in a mitigation system at the start of house construction. Dowie says that if the law doesn't require mitigation systems, construction companies are not going to spend the money to do it.

After the death of his wife, Lambert and his family are starting a new life in a new home, where he paid to have a mitigation system installed.

"It's hard on my daughters. They're 11 and growing up without a mom. It's tough on me, you know. I just think, given the level of radon in Iowa, there has to be some more steps taken," he said.

Taking further steps will require more money, Welke said.

"If we don't get the money, I don't know what the department would do with the program," he said. "If they decided to close the licensing program, the public wouldn't have any way of protecting themselves from unscrupulous people...anybody could walk in and start mitigating and measuring radon and tell a lot of lies. There would be no oversight at all."

(MacKenzie Elmer is a senior journalism major at the University of Iowa and a staffwriter for IowaWatch. Dana Larsen is the editor of the Pilot-Tribune.)

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: