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Taking action against radon health risks

Through UND partnership, Grand Forks residents can check out radon detectors from local library

A radon detection program in partnership with UND and the Grand Forks Public library enables the library’s patrons to check out digital radon detectors to determine if their homes contain unsafe levels of radon gas. Photo by Joonghwa Lee/UND Department of Communication.

The University of North Dakota and the Grand Forks Public library are teaming up to make home testing for radon free and as easy as possible, hoping to save lives and create healthier living spaces.

In mid-March, the library began allowing its patrons to check out digital radon detectors to determine if their homes contain unsafe levels of the radioactive, carcinogenic gas.. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas produced from such radioactive elements as uranium and thorium, present in rocks and soil. It is an important cause of lung cancer and typically seeps into the basements of homes through foundation cracks and sump pump openings.

The National Center for Healthy Housing provided $5,000 in funding for UND’s proposal to develop a partnership with the local library to create a digital radon detector lending program.

“Unlike one-time use radon detectors that need to be sent to a diagnostic library, these detectors are re-usable, do not require a laboratory for analysis and can inform residents about radon levels in real time,” said Soojung Kim, chair of UND’s Department of Communication.

Her research focuses on increasing the awareness of public health issues and changing health behaviors by using effective social and mobile media strategies.

Radon’s health risks

“Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, accounting for 21,000 deaths nationally,” Kim explained. “There is a great need for citizens of Grand Forks to test their houses for radon levels and, if warranted, remediate them.”

During a meeting at the Grand Forks library are, from left to right, information services supervisor Tonya Palmer, library director Wendy Wendt, Gary Schwartz with the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences and Soojung Kim with the UND Department of Communication. Photo by Joonghwa Lee/UND Department of Communication.

Tonya Palmer, information services supervisor at the library, said anyone with a library card can check out a radon detector, just like a book or CD.

”We were given 40 detectors, and when we put them out on display, they started going out right away,” Palmer said. “More than half have been checked out. We’ve had a really strong response to it.”

Each detector includes information on what readings from the test measurement mean and what can be done to remediate an identified problem with radon in the home, such as sealing cracks in the floor and foundation or covering openings for sump pumps.

Kim said Grand Forks exhibits some of the highest residential radon levels in the U.S., according to testing by the EPA and the state of North Dakota. The mean radon level in the community’s homes is nine times the average in homes in the U.S and three times the EPA recommended action level for radon remediation.

Gary Schwartz, chair of the Department of Population Heath in UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences, said new research indicates the radon problem could be even more serious, contributing to childhood asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and strokes.

“An American has a stroke every four minutes,” he said. “If radon contributed even modestly to the risk of stroke, that would be incredibly important.”

More cancer connections?

As an epidemiologist whose research specializes in cancers of unknown origins, Schwartz became interested in a potential connection between radon and an unusual cancer known as chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

“It’s a leukemia of the elderly,” he noted. “We don’t know what causes it, but it has dramatic geographic variation.”

Kim became acquainted with Schwartz’s research when she was studying for her master’s degree in public health at UND. They recognized that getting people to test their homes for radon involved solving communication issues and changing behaviors.

“Our recent clinical trial data on the results of distributing short-term charcoal radon test kits show that despite the receipt of free radon test kits, they are rarely returned to the laboratory,” Kim said. “These findings strongly suggested that an alternate means to promote radon testing was needed.”

Included with the digital radon detectors available from the Grand Forks library is information on what the readings mean and what homeowners can do to lower the level of unsafe amounts of radon gas. Photo by Joonghwa Lee/UND Department of Communication.

Schwartz knew of a Canadian program in which libraries lent digital radon detectors to their patrons. He and Kim decided to create a similar program in Grand Forks with funding from NCHH. They purchased 40 battery-powered digital detectors from Airthings, a company based in Norway, and worked out the details with Wendy Wendt, director of the Grand Forks library.

“The beauty of these detectors is that they’re not one-time-use detectors,” Schwartz said. “Within a couple of hours, they will display a radiation measurement in picocuries. You’re better off leaving it in the basement for a couple of days because it gives you a more accurate measurement over time.”

Even better, Schwartz said the detectors solve the “human compliance issue” because the test is free and nobody is required to send anything to a laboratory to get test results.

Winter and geology

As Schwartz noted, uranium is normally a deep-earth element, but because the Red River Valley was scoured by glaciation, radon naturally occurs at more shallow depths than other parts of the U.S. The combination of long, cold winters and geology lead to higher radon levels in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. .

“Radon itself isn’t the problem,” he said. “It’s the fact that the particles emit high energy that can break cells and damage DNA.”

UND research shows that even when short-term charcoal radon test kits are distributed for free, they are rarely returned to the laboratory for testing and results Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

During winter when furnaces run and homes are closed up, sealed and insulated to prevent heat loss, radon is most likely to collect and build to dangerous levels.

“Warm air in the home rises and creates a suction,” Schwartz explained. “It pulls the soil gases from underneath the house through cracks in the foundation. Radon gets in, but if the house is well insulated, it doesn’t get out.”

Radon is less of a problem during warmer months when homes tend to be more open and better ventilated. Therefore, testing during the winter provides the best measure of radon levels.

While Palmer noted that the Grand Forks library can check out its radon detectors on loan to other public libraries across North Dakota, Schwartz said his hope is for the Grand Forks program to be duplicated across the state.

“Every county in North Dakota has radon levels greater than the EPA action level,” he said. “We can help other communities do this because we’ve worked out all the kinks. We know have a relationship with the manufacturer of the detectors, and we’ve had a lot of experience with them.

“We’re starting this program with $5,000 and the sweat equity we’ve put into it,” Schwartz continued. “We could duplicate it in other libraries for about the same amount of money.”