Crow Wing County homeowners may have a killer among them and don't even know it.
Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, and the largest environmental cancer risk and leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
"It's extremely serious," said Bill Carlson, who does radon testing and installs home mitigation systems to remove dangerous levels of radon in homes statewide.
Radon is an odorless, colorless and tasteless radioactive gas occurring naturally in Minnesota soils. It can enter homes through cracks and openings in basement or foundation floors and walls, according to county officials.
January is National Radon Awareness Month. Crow Wing County Land Services in Brainerd is offering free radon testing kits to area residents at the Land Services Building, 322 Laurel St., Suite 15, with a limit of one kit per household, while supplies last.
"What happens in rural areas is that there may not be certified people to do the radon testing, or you have somebody out there doing testing who may not be doing it properly," Carlson said.
Carlson and his wife are Brainerd natives. His father Calvin was a local community college instructor for decades. The couple have many relatives and friends in the Brainerd lakes area.
"The reality is we service the entire state," said Carlson of Healthy Homes, a certified and professional radon testing and mitigation service offering free, no obligation in-home estimates. "If in fact you have a problem, make sure whoever is taking care of it is certified."
The Minnesota Department of Health estimates 1 in 3 homes in the state has radon levels posing a large health risk over many years of exposure. In Minnesota, 2 in 5 homes have radon levels posing a significant health risk.
"Radon is a naturally caused gas that comes out of the soil, and it is coming from a deposit of uranium, and when uranium decomposes, it changes to radium, and that lets off radon gas," Carlson said. "What you're afraid of is the microscopic decay particles that are radioactive."
A 72-year-old North Dakota woman died in November after chronic exposure to radon in her home in Casselton. Her cause of death-pulmonary fibrosis as a result of "radon toxicity"-is believed to be the first such classification on a death certificate in that state.
"You breathe in these small radioactive decay particles, they hit your lungs, and they create microscopic sores," Carlson said. "If that exact same spot gets hit multiple times, that's when it gets changed into cancer cells."
Every hour, someone in the United States dies from radon-related lung cancer even though the risk is largely preventable. The county and the state Health Department recommends all homes be tested for radon every two to five years and the results should be saved.
"People can do a radon test improperly," Carlson said. "I actually had one up on Gull Lake where they tested in a dirt crawl space ... and that ended up costing the seller of the home $6,000 because she had to have the crawlspace sealed and mitigation system installed."
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends homeowners take action when a radon level is four and above, referred to as 4.0 pCi/L or 4 picocuries per liter.
According to Air Chek Inc., a retailer of patented radon test kits, the average radon level in Crow Wing County is 3.3 pCi/L, with results above 4.0 pCi/L accounting for 27.5 percent and results above 2.0 pCi/L at 59.3 percent.
"It is important to perform a radon test after buying a new heating system or adding central air conditioning," a county news release stated.
A recent state building code requires a "passive" radon reduction system in new home construction, to which a fan can be added later to reduce radon levels further.
"What radon mitigation does is create a pressure release point in the basement with a pathway of least resistance to take the radon out of the home ... creating a path of least resistance underneath the slab of the home, so the gas doesn't force itself into the home," Carlson said.
A Minnesota law passed in 2014 requires home sellers to disclose known radon concentrations to a potential buyer.
"Testing is easy, inexpensive and takes three to five days. In homes with levels over 4.0 pCi/L, homeowners should consider verification testing and possibly installing a mitigation system, which will remove radon from your home," the release stated.
For more information on radon testing and mitigation, visit www.health.state.mn.us/radon or call the Minnesota Department of Health Indoor Air Unit at 651-201-4601 or 1-800-798-9050. Or visit Healthy Homes online at www.healthyhomesradon.com.
Anyone interested in mitigating their home for radon should consult MDH's list of certified radon mitigation contractors at www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/radon/mitigation.html.