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Education program boosts radon testing for Kansans

K-State Research and Extension


Mary Bonner went to the doctor last year for a recurring backache. Her diagnosis of lung cancer was a staggering shock.

The Paola resident had always despised smoking -- lung cancer's No. 1 cause. She wasn't an isolated case, however, so her oncologist already knew the probable answer -- radon.

Radon exposure is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers and the No. 2 cause overall. An estimated 21,000 Americans die each year because they've breathed in too much of it too long.

Radon is an unusual air pollutant because it has a natural source, and it's radioactive. It mostly results from the decay of uranium-238 in soil and rock. It can seep into mines, caves, and homes, sometimes building to dangerous levels. People can't see, smell, or taste radon. Exposure provides no warning symptoms, such as nausea or headache. Humans' only known reaction is cell damage that can lead to lung cancer.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says radon causes nearly 100 times more deaths each year than carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet, lots of people still don't know much about radon -- much less take it seriously," said Diane Burnett, a K-State Research and Extension Miami County agent.The Kansas Radon Program uses K-State's statewide network of county and district offices to offer one-on-one information and do-it-yourself radon test kits -- at cost As budget allows, the Kansas Radon Program also solicits mini-grant proposals to help agents build local awareness and promote radon testing.

Burnett said the Bonners learned that the home they'd moved into two years ago was fine. But their previous home – where their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren now live -- tested well above the Environmental Protection Agency danger level. Tom Bonner, a Paola planning commissioner, became both an inspiration and a supporter, Burnett said. He was a persistent force in propelling friends, coworkers, and mere acquaintances toward K-State's radon-related programs.

"Because of Diane's efforts, some people won't have to deal with cancer," said Tom Bonner.

Burnett and agents throughout Kansas have received training from Bruce Snead, residential engineer, and coordinator Brian Hanson, who head the Kansas Radon Program. Snead provides the majority of the state and region's technical training. Hanson coordinates Kansas' education efforts and works with radon programs in other states.

The Kansas Radon Program is funded in part by an Environmental Protection Agency grant, under contract with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Snead and Hanson have provided training for more than two-thirds of the radon measurement professionals and more than 80 percent of the radon mitigation professionals, as well as K-State Research and Extension's staff. They've provided no-cost continuing education for hundreds of real estate agents. They've assisted state legislative and community efforts and continue to promote real-estate testing and radon-excluding building codes.

"The EPA estimates that one in four Kansas homes has dangerous levels of radon," Hanson said. "That's much worse than the national average of one in 15, but better than the averages in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska."Radon mitigation usually costs about the same as a good-quality washing machine. Typically, it combines sealing house leaks with installing an under-house system of pipes and venting fans.