When Laura Larsson moved to Montana from Oregon in 1998, she had no clue what radon was.
Today the 39-year-old mother and professor is well-educated about the gas and is on a mission to educate others about the potential health hazard.
With the help of a three-year, $350,000 research grant, Larsson, an assistant professor at the College of Nursing at Montana State University, aims to reduce the number of radon-related lung cancer illnesses and associated deaths.
Larsson learned about radon, an odorless, tasteless, cancer-causing carcinogen, when she had a baby in 2001. Colleagues advised her to have her house checked for radon before bringing the infant home. She discovered the quantity was more than three times the acceptable level.
“I thought, ‘Holy cow, I better get this fixed,’ “ Larsson said. She did, but her interest was piqued.
Radon is found throughout Montana. Regions of the state where concentrations are high depend on geology.
With the grant secured, Larsson embarked on her research in September 2010 and has been overwhelmed by the response.
In less than eight months, she has heard from senior citizens wanting to sell their homes but are concerned about the health and safety of young, naïve buyers. Graduate students in basement apartments also have expressed concern about high levels of radon. Others wanting to speak with Larsson have included employees of radon mines, sick residents wanting to know the cause of their illness and public health officials.
Montana law requires a disclosure clause in a home’s buy-sell agreement that describes radon and the fact that some Montana buildings have radon levels higher than EPA guidelines. Because of that, potential homebuyers often ask about the radon level, though radon testing is not mandatory.
To date, Larsson’s research has shown that low-income people in rental homes are less likely to have had property tested for radon or have taken action to reduce the levels if they were high.
“There are no U.S. laws that govern indoor radon testing for renters,” Larsson said. “As public health workers, we look into a lot of things. We inspect homes, pools and tattoo parlors, but not rented homes.”
Low-income women, in particular, tend to spend a lot of time at home, so the safety and quality of the air they breathe matters tremendously.
Radon gas, a naturally occurring byproduct of the radioactive decay of uranium in the soil, is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon General’s Office. Overall, it is the second leading cause of lung cancer, claiming about 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually.
Montanans have about 55.2 lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 67.5 per 100,000 on average throughout the United States, according to the Montana Vital Statistics Bureau.
The EPA recommends that homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 picocuries per liter or more. Because there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, the EPA also recommends that Americans consider fixing their home for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L. The average radon concentration in the indoor air of America’s homes is about 1.3 pCi/L.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, “Any radon exposure has some risk of causing lung cancer. The lower the radon levels in your home, the lower your family’s risk of lung cancer.”
Larsson is using some of the grant money to find ways for low-income tenants to access radon home test kits so they can determine if the levels are putting them at risk.
She is also working to place flat-screen monitors in the waiting rooms of county programs that provide food subsidies for women, infants and children. One screen broadcasts information about radon and how to get reduced-price test kits. The other provides general messages about health and safety.
As part of her research, Larsson will determine which messages on these digital bulletin boards generate the most interest in buying and using home radon test kits so they will become used universally in county program offices.
Stephanie Burkholder, a public health nurse for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, described Larsson’s efforts as phenomenal.
“It’s an area a lot of people are unaware of and need more education about,” Burkholder said. “We have high rates in Montana. She’s bringing to light an issue that has not been addressed previously.”
Larsson received her grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropic organization devoted exclusively to health and health care.