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Health department urges locals to take action against radon

By Katie Demeria

WINCHESTER -- Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after smoking. For non-smokers, it is the leading cause. And, according to the Virginia Department of Health, few individuals are doing anything to fight it.

January is national radon awareness month, and Charles Devine III, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, said his team is working to raise awareness of the dangers of radon.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas produced by the radioactive decay of uranium, Devine said. It leaks into homes when foundations disturb collections of uranium, and the gas decays further when inhaled in the lungs, becoming trapped there.

"The entire Shenandoah Valley is in Zone One, which is the area with the greatest risk of radon," Devine continued. "It's a real issue that people should be paying attention to."

Virginia is categorized as a Zone One state, though areas in the Chesapeake region are listed as Zone Three.

According to Ryan D. Paris, radiation safety specialist of the radiological heath program, the prevalence of radon depends on geographic history.

"This is a mountainous area, so you're going to see it here because the ground has been shifting over the years, bringing bedrocks closer to the surface," he said.

"You see lower levels near the oceans because that land has been underwater in the recent history -- though that does not mean radon is not there," Paris continued.

The only way to see if radon is an issue in a home, Devine said, is to set up a test.

"It's very simple -- the packets cost maybe about $15, and you set it up in your home, let it sit for a few days, and then seal it and mail it in to be tested," he said. "It does not require much."

Each home, regardless of the radon levels of the houses nearby, should be tested, Devine added. Pockets of uranium can be found anywhere, and while one house on a street could have very little, another could have quite a bit.

"You can never reach zero with radon," he said. "It is found in every building, but the amount can be so small that it does not matter. It's when those amounts increase that people need to take action."

The Environmental Protection Agency's radon level recommendation is below 4.0 pCi/L. According to Devine, ratings in the Shenandoah Valley have ranged between 15.0 and 100.0 pCi/L. A home in Winchester recently had a radon level of 98 pCi/L.

"This is a serious health risk," Paris said. "All major health organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization, are saying this is something that should be addressed. This is a relatively new problem, it started getting more attention in 1984."

The first step, Paris continued, is for homeowners to test their homes using the simple radon test. If the level is found to be too high, radon professionals can be hired to clear the home, usually by creating ventilation in the foundation so the gas can escape.

The Lord Fairfax Health District will be distributing free radon test kits at the Feb. 22 Community Wellness Festival at the Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester.

"We're trying to make it easier for people, because this is a big problem that is not getting as much attention as it should," he said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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