Jan Poulsen to DEQ

Jan Poulsen tells the Utah Department of Environmental Quality how high radon levels in her home led her to develop lung cancer in a video released by DEQ in January 2020.

In some zip codes in Northern Utah, half of all homes have radon levels that are too high.

In the cases of Box Elder and Morgan counties, that statistic holds true across the entire county.

Radon is a radioactive gas that results from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil and rock, according the the Utah Department of Environmental Quality's website.

It's heavier than air, so it collects in basements and lower levels of homes, said Eleanor Divver, radon coordinator for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. 

It's also potentially deadly. 

"(Radon) a form of radiation," Divver said. "...By decreasing that (exposure), we're protecting ourselves from cancer."

Radon is the top cause of lung cancer for non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Lung cancer is also a leading cause of death among women — "it takes a greater toll on women than breast cancer, ovarian cancer and uterine cancer combined," according to Harvard Medical School.

The importance of testing

Jan Poulsen, a resident of Salt Lake valley, only learned that the radon levels in her home were too high after being diagnosed with stage three lung cancer.

She was not a smoker, so she and her husband began to investigate why she would have developed lung cancer.

They found that the radon level in their home, which sits near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, was 24.9 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) — six times the recommended "action level" of 4 pCi/L. 

This exposure was equivalent to Poulsen smoking three packages of cigarettes a day, according to the DEQ website.

While the level of radon was safe — about 2 pCi/L — when the Poulsens bought their home, they had remodeled the home in 2002, five years before Jan Poulsen's cancer diagnosis.

The remodeling created an opening in the home's foundation that allowed more radon to enter the structure, the DEQ website says.

"If we had done the (radon) test in 2002 after our remodel, we probably could have kept my cancer from happening," Poulsen said in a video recently produced by DEQ, "because they told me that my tumor had probably been there for four years."

When she was first diagnosed, Poulsen was told she had about four months to live, but due to newly developed medication and surgeries, she is still alive and in remission.

How, when and where to test

In the winter, radon gets pulled up and circulated throughout homes by heating systems, Divver said, which is why it is a good time to test for it. January is also National Radon Action Month.

"The fact is the only way to know what our levels are in our home is to test," Divvers said. "We can't know because we can't see it or smell it or taste it."

For Radon Action Month, DEQ had a giveaway of 100 radon tests — and as of Monday, all of those tests have been claimed.

However, DEQ offers discounted radon tests for sale on their website at radon.utah.gov for Utah residents. The least expensive test, which Divver said was just as effective as more expensive versions, costs $11.

"Really, a bedroom is ideal to test, because that's where we're really spending the majority of time at home — people will spend seven to eight hours in their bedroom," Divver said.

If the result of the first test comes in between 4-9 pCi/L, the EPA recommends a second test to confirm, Divver said. 

If your home consistently tests above 4 pCi/L, the EPA recommends finding a certified professional to install a mitigation system, Divver said.

Mitigation systems pull the radon out from the area under the slabs homes are built on, reducing the amount of radon that makes it into the home, Divver said.

The average cost of installing a mitigation system runs from $1,200 to $1,500, Divver said, and DEQ recommends that homeowners seek three bids.

How many homes in Northern Utah are affected

Poulsen and her family are not alone among Utahns when it comes to radon exposure. Across Utah, about one in three homes has too much radon in the air.

However, Box Elder and Morgan counties exceed this state average.

As of June 2019, in Box Elder County, 56.9% of the 831 homes tested across the county have too much radon, at a level of 7.5 pCi/L on average.

About 65% of the 46 homes tested in the zip code 84324, which covers Mantua and the surrounding areas, tested too high, with an average radon level of 12.5 pCi/L, three times the action level.

In Morgan County, 52.4% of the 278 homes tested exceeded 4 pCi/L of radon, with an average of 6.6 pCi/L.

Weber and Davis counties are consistent with the state average, with about a third of homes overall having a level of radon that is too high, but certain pockets have higher percentages.

As of June 2019, almost 60% of the 544 homes tested for radon in the zip code 84014, an area of Davis County that covers Centerville, exceeded the "action level" of 4 pCi/L, with an average among those homes of 7.6 pCi/L.

About 60% of the 285 homes tested in the zip code 84310, an area in Weber County that covers Eden and a wide swath of area to the north, had an average three times the action level, at 12.1 pCi/L.

In the zip code 84414, which covers North Ogden and Pleasant View in Weber County, almost half of all homes, 48.2%, have radon levels that are too high, at 5.3 pCi/L on average.

What's scarier is that many homes defied these averages, with levels that were multiple times higher than even the Poulsens' home, which measured 24.9 pCi/L.

The maximum level of radon tested in a home was 90.4 pCi/L in Box Elder County, 215 pCi/L in Davis County, 200 pCi/L in Morgan County and 152.4 in Weber County.

"For me, almost more than any other reason that you want to test, you just want to make sure that you're not being exposed to such high levels," Divver said.

Contact reporter Megan Olsen at molsen@standard.net or 801-625-4227. Follow her on Twitter at @MeganAOlsen.

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