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Law aims at reducing Minnesota radon levels

By Matthew Stolle

The Post-Bulletin

Rick Rein didn’t know a thing about radon when he bought his new home in Rochester in 2003. Then he had his house tested for it and came away with a nasty surprise.

The radioactive gas existed in his home at elevated levels, higher than recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, increasing his risk for lung cancer.

Rein is almost certainly not alone. More than half the homes tested in Olmsted County for radon since 1992 have shown levels above the recommended amount, county officials say.

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Rein’s experience eventually became the catalyst for a new law authored by state Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester that mandates the installation of mitigation controls for radon when new homes are built. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill earlier this month. It goes into effect on Aug. 1.

"Fifteen percent of all lung cancers are said to be caused from radon," Norton said, citing a figure by the World Health Organization. "It’s taking a bite out of that 15 percent by protecting people who buy new homes."

A natural byproduct of the radioactive decay of uranium, radon can’t be seen, smelled or tested. That elusiveness is part of the reason it is easy to ignore. Radon exists in the soil and slips into homes through cracks in the foundation. Homes with basements are more vulnerable to radon build-up, because of their increased contact with the soil.

The link between radon and lung cancer has been demonstrated, officials say, through statistical studies that have examined decades-long exposure to radon. In a letter, Bill Angell, a University of Minnesota professor and expert on radon, told Pawlenty that radon in Minnesota homes "causes the premature of death of as many as 1,000 citizens a year."

When Pawlenty signed the bill, Minnesota became the only state in the country to mandate systems to remove radon. Advocates say it makes sense, because radon exists unevenly throughout the United States.

"The whole southern half of Minnesota and whole state of Iowa as defined by the EPA is a high radon potential area," said Dan Delano, a registered environmental health specialist for Olmsted County.

The Home Builders of Minnesota had traditionally opposed the measure, arguing that the link between radon and lung cancer is unproved, officials say. This year the group lined up behind the legislation, joining public health officials, radon experts and scientists in support of the measure.

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