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  • Roger Witherspoon

Radon Gas Unwelcome, Easy to Evict

By Roger Witherspoon

The Journal News (Westerchester County, NY)

The Journal News

December 25, 2004 Saturday

Radioactive gas occurs naturally, can increase cancer risk

The Journal News

The developer in South Salem was incredulous.

He had to certify to the buyers of a new home that the structure was free of termites

and the radioactive gas radon. There were no insects, but tests showed the radon

level was 50 times the safety limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The builder had done some blasting when he put in the foundation and must have

hit a vein of uranium, which led to the high levels of radon in the home," said Kurt

Dorfi, head of the Elmsford-based Radon Mitigation Corp. of America. "The builder

couldn't believe the readings. He had it tested several times before he would accept


Radon and its effects on the body are considered the nation's second-leading cause

of lung cancer behind smoking, and the American Cancer Society estimates radon is

responsible for as many as 22,000 deaths annually. It is an odorless, colorless and

seemingly ubiquitous gas that rises from uranium deposits in the earth and is found

nearly everywhere in varying concentrations. It becomes a problem when it builds up

inside homes and is constantly inhaled over time.

The EPA believes long-term exposure to very low levels of radon would cause the

same amount of lung damage as smoking half a pack of cigarettes daily or taking

200 chest X-rays per year.

As homes become more energy efficient and airtight, there is a greater chance that

radon will build up, particularly in basements. But the gas is easy to detect and

remove, so it is not necessary to be overly worried about its presence or consider

abandoning a home with radon.

Hardware stores sell radon detection kits for less than $20, and removing the gas is

a fairly simple procedure, usually costing between $1,000 and $1,500. Dorfi said the

condition is easily corrected by creating low-pressure zones under a building's

foundation and using pipes to channel the gas above the roof, where it is vented.

The radon levels in the South Salem home were well above those in most houses

tested in the Lower Hudson River Valley region. The state Department of Health

believes the gas exists in many homes in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam

counties, but at levels generally two or three times the EPA's safety limit. The

department's projections are based on analysis of the soil in the Lower Hudson Valley

and an examination of its underground geological formations.

It is common for people to learn of the presence of radon when they are buying or

selling a home. Robert Simon, a 46-year-old physician, was planning to move from

Manhattan to Larchmont last summer when he decided to have the house tested for

radon. The test came back just above the EPA limit, he said.

"It was almost a deal breaker," said Simon, who is married with children. "We felt

the owner should take care of the problem, but the real estate agents split the

difference. It was a big issue that came up during the negotiations. Someone had to

take care of that problem."

"We bought the house," he said, and the radon mitigation is to take place this


Though the existence of radon has long been known, it also had long been thought

to be a carcinogenic danger only to uranium miners. Its ability to seep in and build

up in homes was discovered accidentally in 1984 when Stanley Watras, an engineer

at the Limerick nuclear power station in Pottstown, Pa., repeatedly set off radiation

detectors as he entered the plant. An investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory

Commission traced the contamination to Watras' home, where they found radon

levels at 675 times what would later become the EPA's safety limit. Watras' house

was built over a thick vein of uranium and the radon was seeping into the building

through cracks in the foundation.

Nidal Azzam, an EPA health physicist, said radon-related cancer isn't triggered by the

gas itself. "The radon decays away into other radioactive material (in the lungs)"

Azzam said. "At the end of the decay process, you end up with lead, and lead is


Radon is considered a contributing factor to all forms of lung cancer by increasing

the odds of developing the disease. Jay Lubin, a cancer researcher at the National

Cancer Institute in Maryland, said radon could double the potency of carcinogens

such as tobacco, which increases a person's risk of cancer by a factor of 20.

"So the real effect is greater on smokers than nonsmokers because their background

rate is higher to begin with," Lubin said.

The gas has been directly associated with one type of lung disease, small cell lung

cancer, said Lyall Gorenstein, chief of thoracic surgery at Nyack Hospital. That is a

type of cancer that tends to spread from one lung to another, rather than from the

lungs to other parts of the body.

"We are seeing more and more of this form of cancer," said Gorenstein, "and it

occurs more often in women and nonsmokers. It is increasing in frequency when

other forms of lung cancer are staying about the same rate. It could be triggered by

radon, which may be why it is increasing."

Radon and its dangers should be understood, but not feared. "You can't eliminate it

from your environment," Lubin said. "The best you can do is lower the level in your


For more information on radon

New York State Department of Health

The agency provides information and a map showing the percentage of homes with

unsafe levels of radon in each county.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

EPA Radon Hotline

800-55RADON (800-557-2366)

National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

National Hispanic Family Health Helpline


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