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SALT LAKE CITY — Each year, exposure to radon gas is linked to 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths. In Holladay, one city councilman's personal experience with elevated radon levels in a family home has prompted the community to take action. Now, the results of citywide testing for radon is uncovering some startling but potentially life-saving results.
Radon gas is colorless and odorless, so it's considered to be a "silent killer." It is a radioactive gas released from the ground due to the normal decay of elements like uranium, thorium, and radium in in rocks and soil. If a house is properly sealed, the gas doesn't build up in homes.
In 1999, Holladay City Councilman Jim Palmer moved his family into a home built by his great-grandfather in the 1920s. A few years later he decided to use a radon gas test he picked up at a local hardware store, and he was shocked by the results.
The radon gas levels in the almost 100-year-old home were at 68 picocuries per liter, which is 17 times the 4 picocuries per liter level accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Palmer said the reading was "the highest reading they'd ever seen in Salt Lake County and he'd better do something about it." And he did.
Acting quickly, he ventilated the radon gas out of the house with a mitigation system. But the deadly air in the home had already claimed a victim.
"My father, who lived in this house for 30 years, is currently suffering from terminal lung cancer," Palmer said.
My father, who lived in this house for 30 years, is currently suffering from terminal lung cancer.
–Jim Palmer, Holladay City Councilman
City leaders knew they needed to be more proactive. According to the National Institutes of Health, exposure to radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind cigarette smoking.
"I think the wake-up call was when Councilman Palmer's father was suffering from lung cancer," said Clarence Kemp, a Holladay City Engineer.
Kemp said that city leaders asked themselves, "What can and should we be doing as a city to help address those health needs?" Their answer was to distribute 200 free radon testing kits and then "use those results as part of the education process," according to Kemp.
About two-thirds of the results are in.
"We're getting some very high readings in the fifties and sixties that is the equivalent of being a multi-pack a day smoker," Palmer said.
A map on Holladay's website shows a random pattern of extremely dangerous radon levels highlighted with brown, orange and red dots. That means one in three Holladay residents might need a mitigation system to clear radon gas out of the homes.
Palmer said he now has a "system of pipes and visqueen that insulates my basement and goes to a fan that runs 24-7 and ejects air out of the basement."
David Evans owns Hometek LLC, a radon mitigation company that installs systems throughout the Salt Lake Valley.
"The average price one should plan on budgeting for a system is about $1,500 to take care of the situation," Evans said.
I think the wake-up call was when Councilman Palmer's father was suffering from lung cancer.
–Clarence Kemp, a Holladay City Engineer.
Evans has installed systems in dozens of homes over the past 15 years. The ventilation system he installed in one Holladay home took radon levels from 9 picocuries per liter of air down to .05 picocuries.
"So, we're exhausting the radon back into the air where it would have gone naturally," Evans said.
From new construction to properties changing ownership, Hometek and other mitigation contractors are making homes safer to live and breathe in. Holladay leaders hope they've started a trend that will raise awareness and save lives all along the Wasatch Front.
"We're hoping that this becomes kind of a template program to not only increase awareness but to provide concrete reasons for people to correct those issues," Kemp said.
Palmer wishes his family had known more about the threat of radon gas years ago. "It turns out that every day was a red air day until we fixed the problem inside our house," he said.