Beware: There may be a killer in your home.
This killer does not carry a knife or gun. It will not violently attack an unsuspecting victim. In fact, you probably won't even know this killer exists, lurking among your family photo albums and grandmother's china.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon, a colorless, odorless gas found in the soil, water and air, kills 21,000 people a year. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
"Radon is everywhere," said Michael Murray, an EPA health physicist. "We're fighting to give it widespread exposure so people know about its effects."
The EPA has designated January National Radon Action Month, encouraging people everywhere to test their homes' radon levels and, if necessary, take action to reduce them.
Radon, which is naturally occurring and radioactive, emanates from the earth, so a small amount is always present in the air.
"Because radon is classified as a known human carcinogen, no amount of exposure to radon is actually considered safe," Murray said. "But since you can't get zero exposure to it, you want to go as low as you can."
Scientists measure radon in pico Curries per Liter, or pCi/L. According to Murray, the amount of radon outdoors usually measures between 0.3 and 0.7 pCi/L. The EPA recommends any measurement higher than 4 pCi/L in a home or other building be mitigated within a year.
"Obviously the higher it is, the sooner you need to address it," Murray said.
The Ohio Department of Health is "very concerned" about radon, said Elizabeth James, ODH's radon program leader. Radon levels are determined by geologic conditions, and on EPA maps a majority of the state's counties are categorized as Zone 1. This means that these counties have a predicted radon level higher than 4 pCi/L.
Huron and Seneca counties fall into Zone 1. Erie, Ottawa and Sandusky counties are categorized as Zone 2, meaning their predicted radon levels are between 2 and 4 pCi/L.
Regardless of EPA estimates, everyone should have their homes tested for radon, says Todd Radloff, owner of Erie Inspection Service.
Winter is the best time of year to do the tests, he said, because of the need for "closed house conditions." Radon can easily escape through open windows, so tests conducted during spring, summer or fall may be misleading.
"Radon levels are usually highest at this time of year," Radloff said. "And long-term exposure to high levels of it is incredibly dangerous."
Radloff's company offers a home inspection plus radon test for $125. The test is done with a monitor that continuously takes radon readings and compiles the average amount present in the home.
Oak Harbor resident Laura Kohring recently had her home tested by Radloff. Since the Kohrings use their basement frequently, she was concerned about the possibility of radon exposure.
"I'm a registered nurse, so I'm interested in health preventative issues," Kohring said. "I wanted to be sure that our home was safe for my own piece of mind."
The test showed Kohring's home has a radon level of 2 pCi/L, which is considered normal by the EPA.
"The test results were very good," Kohring said. "We don't have to take any precautionary measures."
Home radon test kits are also available at major hardware stores for between $10 and $30.
"Test kits produced by a licensed lab are reasonably accurate," James said. "They're a good way to test if you don't want to pay for a professional inspector."
State law now requires Ohio schools to test for radon. This is a good step in combating over-exposure to the gas, said Ashok Kumar, a University of Toledo professor who has been researching radon in Ohio since the mid-1980s.
"By requiring schools to test, you can find out about the problem and bring the levels down before they get too high," he said.
So far, Ohio school districts have been very responsive to radon testing, James said. But since the state does not provide funding for the tests, schools have to provide the resources themselves.
Murray, the EPA physicist, hopes people across the country will take the initiative to have their homes, schools and offices tested for radon.
According to an EPA report released in January 2007, only about 20 percent of U.S. homes had been tested. This just isn't enough, Murray said.
"We want to see the numbers go up more," Murray said. "Even if you think you a have a low radon level, have your home tested. It's the only way to know for sure."