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Be aware of radon risks

A sign at the intersection of Highway 29 and Highway 63 in Pierce County encourages residents to test their homes for radon.

It can't be seen, it can't be smelled and it regularly poses significant health risks to people who don't realize it's lingering around them.

It's radon, and its indistinguishable qualities make it very important to test for.

That's why the Pierce County Public Health Department is encouraging local residents to take precautions and find out whether they face a radon problem in their own home. Tests conducted by the department throughout the past decade showed that more than 50 percent of houses tested in the county had elevated radon levels.

A map created by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that Pierce County, as well as much of the surrounding area, is considered to be a Zone 1 radon site, meaning it has higher potential for increased amounts of radon.

"We recommend that everybody test their house," Pierce County environmental health specialist Michele Williams said. "Each house is different. They may pull on the soil differently. What's underneath them could be different."

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. It enters houses through basements and causes up to 22,000 lung cancer deaths annually in the United States, Pierce County reported.

"It's radioactive, which is what makes it the health concern," said Keith Bergeson, environmental health specialist for the Radon Information Center that serves west central Wisconsin.

Since all types of houses -- old, new, drafty, insulated, those with basements and those without -- can be affected, everyone is advised to test for radon. Residents should not assume that their house doesn't have elevated levels simply because their neighbors tested for radon and had no problems, Williams noted.

"Say there's a crack in the ground that comes from a half a mile away. One house could be getting radon gas from that and the house right next door may not be," she explained.

Short-term and long-term test kits are available from Pierce County for $10 and $20, respectively. January is one of the best times to test for radon not only because it's National Radon Action Month, but also because homes are better sealed during the winter.

After testing, homeowners can mail their test kits directly to a lab. It will take an average of about two weeks to get results back, Bergeson said.

If elevated radon levels are discovered, residents can contact officials at either Pierce County Public Health or the Radon Information Center to learn how to go about fixing the problem.

"We give out a list of certified mitigation contractors that people can contact to either come and give them a quote or put a system in their house," Bergeson said, adding that mitigation systems generally range in price from about $1,000 to $1,200.

The mitigation system features a pipe that runs from the basement of a home up through the roof, essentially drawing all of the radon gas from beneath the foundation and sending it outside above the home. Putting the radon into the atmosphere surrounding a person's house isn't a concern, Bergeson said, because the gas becomes diluted as it dissipates.

As far as health goes, Williams said there are no short term effects of radon exposure, so people may not be immediately aware of whether it has adversely affected them.

"There are no mild respiratory issues or anything like that," she said. "The only effect is lung cancer."