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How looking at an invisible gas could bring change into your home

Fellowship Story Showcase

How looking at an invisible gas could bring change into your home

Picture of Sara Israelsen-Hartley

This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Sara Israelsen-Hartley, a participant in the 2019 National Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

 

Inside the newsroom: Ignore radon testing at your own peril

10 ways to protect your family from radon

Lethal and lawless

From deadly mines to dangerous bedrooms

Dustin Wallis, a 39-year-old nonsmoker, receives an infusion to treat stage 4 lung cancer at Utah Cancer Specialists in South Sa
Dustin Wallis, a 39-year-old nonsmoker, receives an infusion to treat stage 4 lung cancer at Utah Cancer Specialists in South Salt Lake on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Deseret News
Monday, February 15, 2021

One year ago, the Deseret News published the story of Dustin Wallis, a 39-year-old, nonsmoking father of two young children who had just been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

In “The Radioactive Killer,” a multipart series, we explained how the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers is radon — an invisible, odorless carcinogenic gas that’s produced as uranium breaks down in the soil.

We detailed the relatively easy steps to reduce radon exposure, as well as the solutions working in other states — then pointed out the gaps in Utah’s efforts.

As a result of the coverage, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said he introduced HB45 to create a radon task force that would study the issue for the next 18 months.

“Let’s roll up our sleeves and come up with something that works,” told the Deseret News. “Let’s see if we can improve the quality of life and save some heartache and sorrow.”

The bill is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, having passed favorably out of the House 68 to 8.

Task force dynamics

Yet while most are celebrating the bill as a positive step forward, some are concerned about the potential for the 11-member task force to become “stacked against” radon regulation advocates and even push such efforts backward.

“The last thing builders and developers want is a whole bunch more regulations,” said Michael Siler, president and director of policy and advocacy for the Utah Radon Policy Coalition. “If it’s pertinent to regulation, particularly regulation that we really need to have happen in Utah to protect folks from radon, I fear it will never get through that task force.”

The task force would consist of:

  • Two senators and two representatives from the Utah State Legislature appointed by senate and house leadership.
  • One representative each from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the Utah Department of Health and the Department of Natural Resources (with the DNR appointee required to have geology expertise).
  • Four governor appointees who represent the real estate field, the construction industry, a local health department, and someone with expertise regarding radon testing and mitigation.

Deseret News special projects reporter Sara Israelsen-Hartley puts a radon test kit in a classroom in Salina Elementary School in Salina on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Siler would like to see more specific language requiring the radon appointee be a licensed and certified mitigator and an industry representative — not just an interested person who claims expertise.

He also noted there’s nothing in the bill to prevent legislative leadership from appointing legislators who are heavily invested in industries that have historically been opposed to radon regulations, such as homebuilders or real estate developers.

Yet Stratton said it’s premature to assume outcomes, and stressed that whatever the task force recommends regarding “ways to increase public awareness about the risks of radon; and ways to mitigate Utah residents’ exposure to radon,” will be vetted by the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.

If the task force appears to have leaned too far in one direction, “that’s why you have a committee open meeting (where) those concerns can be aired out,” he said.

The task force’s influence will also be limited by time. Following its final report in early 2022, the task force would be dissolved, eliminating concerns about big, or growing government, Stratton said.

During a House Business and Labor Committee meeting on Jan. 21, Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, expressed concerns that a task force might be a bit redundant, given that the Utah Department of Environmental Quality already has a “robust” website where individuals can get information and radon test kits.

Siler expressed similar concerns to the Deseret News, worried that setting up a legislative task force might even take power away from the state agency to do what it has historically done regarding radon.

Stratton has asserted that the goal of the bill is not to duplicate anything, nor diminish any previous efforts, but to do more to find solutions and increase awareness.

“The bottom line is,” Stratton said, “we are constitutionally charged with doing all we can to appropriately protect the health, safety and welfare of each other.”

Why talking about radon matters

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Utah — second only to heart disease — and killed 3,160 Utahns in 2017, according to the Utah Cancer Registry’s most recent report from December 2020.

Lung cancer is the state’s most deadly cancer, followed by breast and colorectal cancers.

Utah has the lowest smoking rate in the nation, but because nonsmokers aren’t screened for lung cancer, when cancer is found, it’s often late stage when the odds of survival plummet.

While smoking remains the main cause of lung cancer, the second-leading cause — and the first for nonsmokers — is exposure to radon gas.in the nation, but because nonsmokers aren’t screened for lung cancer, when cancer is found, it’s often late stage when the odds of survival plummet.

Yet, despite decades of warning from the EPA about the health risks of radon exposure, Utah has no laws requiring radon testing in homes, schools, state buildings or child care centers. And while 1 in 3 Utah homes has elevated levels of radon, only 20% of Utahns have tested their homes.

When asked why not, 35% of people said they haven’t thought about it, while another 16% told the Utah Department of Health they don’t know what radon is.

That’s why education is so crucial, says Eleanor Divver, Utah’s radon project coordinator. She would love to see the task force recommend funding for a yearly awareness campaign or perhaps offer tax credits for builders who build new homes in radon-resistant ways.

In the meantime, she continues to encourage individual testing, which is best done in colder months, and even more important now that so many people are working or studying at home.

“Testing is easy, it’s inexpensive,” she said, adding that if radon levels are high, families can take relatively easy steps to add a mitigation system to remove the gas. “It creates a healthy living environment and it saves lives.”

Test kits can be ordered at radon.utah.gov

Ephraim Elementary principal Gannon Jones, Ephraim Elementary custodian Tyler Alder and Deseret News special projects reporter Sara Israelsen-Hartley look over a map of the school while preparing to put radon test kits in classrooms in Ephraim Elementary School in Ephraim on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Ripple effects

The Deseret News’ publication of “The Radioactive Killer” also set in motion other changes:

  • The nonprofit group, Utah Radon Coalition, of which Siler is also president, started a low-income mitigation fund for families who couldn’t otherwise afford to address radon problems in their home. To date they’ve helped two families — a widow and a family of four where the father was disabled by an industrial accident and subsequent stroke — who both had radon levels far above recommended mitigation levels. They are reviewing applications from six more families and will help as many as their small budget allows.
  • Divver is working with several school districts that have set goals to test their all their buildings for radon.
  • An annual survey of state-insured buildings now includes a question about radon testing.
  • And perhaps most encouraging of all, Dustin Wallis is tolerating treatment well and treasuring each day with his wife and children.

[This story was originally published by Deseret News.]

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