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How one reporter faced down uncertainty to tell the story of Utah’s radioactive threat

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

How one reporter faced down uncertainty to tell the story of Utah’s radioactive threat

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Dustin Wallis, a nonsmoker who has stage 4 lung cancer, plays with his children in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
Dustin Wallis, a nonsmoker who has stage 4 lung cancer, plays with his children in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
(Photo: Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)

Utah has the lowest smoking rate in the nation, yet the biggest source of cancer deaths in the state is lung cancer.

That fact still surprises everyone who hears it.

When I first heard it, I had to know why. 

Why — in a state with incredible outdoor offerings that require healthy lungs, and a predominant religion that shuns tobacco — is lung cancer such a problem?

I quickly learned that for non-smokers, the second-leading cause of lung cancer is radon — an invisible, odorless, radioactive gas that’s produced in the soil as uranium decays.

As this gas collects in our basements and we breathe it in, it continues to break down in our lungs, wreaking havoc on our DNA and eventually causing lung cancer. 

Yet what was even more concerning was discovering that Utah has almost no laws regarding radon — whether for testing, mitigation, construction policies or real-estate transactions.

My state is allowing this carcinogen to run amok, unregulated — and people are dying.

Armed with all this information and energized at the prospect of tackling an underreported subject that was causing cancer, I eagerly approached my editors.

Their reception wasn’t quite what I had hoped for. Like good editors they were skeptical. They peppered me with questions. Could I prove this? Could I show a lung cancer patient’s cancer was caused by radon?

What about pollution? Utah has terrible inversions and smoggy winters. Could those instead be the cause of our high lung cancer death-rate?

And when I told them that it took 20 years for radon exposure to cause lung cancer, their eyes widened. The urgency I felt didn’t seem so urgent to them.

Though admittedly hesitant, they allowed me to keep working on the project, and gave the OK to apply for a USC Annenberg 2019 National Fellowship and grant, which I gratefully received.

I vowed to answer every question, become an expert on this topic and prove, beyond any doubts, that radon was a huge problem. 

For months, I approached my editor with piece after piece of what I thought was irrefutable evidence — proof that radon was the problem I had proclaimed it to be, and justification for my long hours of work.

Yet each time I pushed harder on a fact in an attempt to end the debate, he returned with another question, or some way that a skeptical reader could brush the fact aside.

I responded by seeking out more data, more experts. I was on a quest for an airtight argument.

Finally, after more tears and drafts than I can count, my editor and I sat in the editor-in-chief’s office, after missing an initially planned-for publication date. 

I was beginning to lose hope. Yet again, I paraded out my solid facts, the irrefutable evidence that I knew would change people’s minds, would convince them of the magnitude of this problem.

My editor listened to all of this and then simply said, “What we don’t know is the strength of our story. Let’s embrace what we don’t know.”

All of a sudden, my entire mindset flipped. He was right. 

There were still things I didn’t know — not because I hadn’t made the calls or put in the effort, but because the science wasn’t there yet. These were questions the experts were still asking.

I suddenly realized my job wasn’t to present a seamless case. In fact, if I tried to insist to my readers that I had all the answers, they’d slip away through cracks in my argument, put off by my arrogant assertions.

Rather, I needed to lay out all of my carefully reported facts and let readers see the entire picture, gaps and all, so they could draw their own conclusions, ask their own questions and take their own actions.

In less than 20 seconds, my grueling task of tying up every loose end became an exciting opportunity to explain a problem in our state, and what’s being done, or not, to address it.

The story of Dustin was a perfect example. I met Dustin and Emily in the fall, just weeks after Dustin had been diagnosed with non-smoking lung cancer.

Initially, Dustin didn’t seem like the best face for the story. We didn’t know the levels of radon in his childhood home, but we did know he'd grown up in an area at higher risk for elevated average indoor radon levels.

We didn’t have a radon test for when they first bought their home, but we did have a current test showing slightly elevated levels.

We didn’t know if Dustin had any genetic predisposition to lung cancer, but we did know he’s 39 and never smoked.

Could I prove to my readers that Dustin’s lung cancer was caused by radon? No — but I couldn’t prove it wasn’t. Even the doctors who treat Dustin have lingering questions. Questions that make his experience real and powerful. 

Fast forward nearly four months later.

My editors, web designers and I were gathered around a conference table, previewing my project, “The Radioactive Killer” — which included three stories and two videos, several of them featuring Dustin — that would go online that night.

As we wrapped things up, my editor turned to me and said he finally felt a sense of fear, a sense of urgency he had been waiting to feel from our first meeting.

It was a welcome moment — a sort of vindication for the hundreds of hours spent researching and reporting, pouring over scientific documents and travelling across the state to test elementary schools.

But his concern wasn’t the result of a perfect lineup of irrefutable facts. The facts were crucial to setting the stage, but the impact came by creating a sense of uneasiness in his mind through a series of questions: Could this happen to me? What are my home’s radon levels? Why aren’t state officials doing more to protect me? What if I’ve already been exposed?

Those worrisome and unanswered questions helped fuel the story’s success, both in online traffic and later in a community engagement event, where I invited stakeholders, including two legislators, to come brainstorm about this problem and potential solutions. 

Again, I focused on asking questions, and invited them to come up with potential answers.

At that event I heard from a radon mitigator who had received 500 calls for an in-home radon test after my series came out — a huge jump from his normal workload.

The state radon coordinator told me she'd been invited to come speak with legislators during interim about what could be done legislatively. She'd also already heard from a few school districts that were ordering test kits and vowing to test all their buildings correctly.

I got emails and texts from readers and friends who said they'd just ordered a test kit, or tested their home or even installed mitigation systems.

Radon in Utah is a major problem that won’t be solved by one series of articles or one string of powerful facts.

My project may have introduced people to the topic and provided context and details, but more than that, it sparked questions, motivating readers to seek out their own answers, ask additional questions and keep this conversation going in our community.

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