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Abdi Ahmed: Can the air in your house give you cancer? (Part 1)

Half the properties tested in Olmsted County have radon levels that could cause lung cancer and undoubtedly pose significant health risks.

Danger of radioactive contamination from RADON GAS - concept with warning symbol of radioactivity on road sign - image with copy space
Danger of radioactive contamination from RADON GAS - concept with warning symbol of radioactivity on road sign - image with copy space.
Francesco Scatena/Getty Images/iStockphoto
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Moving back to Rochester from Washington, D.C., this summer brought all the excitement of being near family and having a backyard large enough to let our dogs run free. The only thing that lowered this excitement was the concern over the quality of the air in our soon-to-be home.

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Abdi Ahmed.
Contributed

I learned last year that Minnesota has one of the highest radon levels in the country. It's something I did not know while growing up here, but had I known, it might have made a difference in my family's health.

WHAT IS RADON?

Radon is a radioactive gas that is odorless and colorless. It seeps into our homes after it is given off by soil, rock, and water. It is the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. And it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in smokers today. It is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year. You can not see, smell, or taste radon gas, which makes it hard to detect and easy to ignore. Therefore, most Minnesotans are unaware of this hidden danger in their homes.

WHERE IS IT?

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Minnesota, and particularly Olmsted Countym are among a number of areas labeled Zone 1 by the EPA, which means they have radon levels that are estimated to average above the national guideline of ≥4 pCi/L, which poses significant health risks to citizens and requires an action.

Breathing in radon-mixed air at unhealthy levels in your house is known to cause lung cancer and other health issues. So yes, your indoor air could give you cancer if your radon levels are high.

Now, you might think it may not be a problem in your home or, more responsibly, wonder what your risk of exposure might be. Well, without the goal of terrifying you into dropping everything right now to find a test kit, the chance that your house has unsafe levels of radon is much more than what you think you would find comfortable.

Some 72% of Minnesota counties have average radon levels that exceed 4 pCi/L. Two of every five Minnesota buildings tested statewide have radon levels that pose a significant health risk.

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), a measure of radioactivity. The average indoor radon level in the United States is about 1.3 pCi/L. The average outdoor level is about 0.4 pCi/L. The U.S. Surgeon General and EPA recommend fixing homes with radon levels at or above 4 pCi/L.

So, if your house does not have mitigation, it is not a matter of IF you have radon but how much radon are you inhaling in your home.

Let's zoom our focus into Olmsted County. We find that of the number of properties tested from 2010-2020, 74.7% had levels greater than 2 pCi/L, and 48.6% had levels greater than 4 pCi/L.

I want to underscore the gravity of this fact. Half the properties tested in Olmsted County have radon levels that could cause lung cancer and undoubtedly pose significant health risks.

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As a cancer patient with a newborn, it should be no surprise that my trepidation upon moving back was high. I needed to know if the levels were high in our house on the northwest side of town. And if it was, we needed a plan of action to mitigate it. The only way to know is to run a radon test. The Olmsted County Public Health Department has resources on how to do this. They have cost-friendly testing kits that are available to rent. I ordered a kit immediately and began testing the quality of our indoor air.

The result came back at 2 pCi/L. Higher than the national average and certainly not a comforting concentration.

For now, know that the what, when, where, and how of testing matters. For example, radon is known to be higher in the winter than summer. Higher in ground levels than higher floors, and homes with foundations with cracks.

The recommendation by the OCPHD for us is to retest in a different season. If the results come back between 2-4 pCi/L, the next recommended step is to install a radon mitigation system.

Now a point of clarity and emphasis: When compared to the outside air, radon levels at or near the US levels for mitigation should still be a cause for concern. Take note of the findings from the World Health Organization: "The lower the radon concentration in a home, the lower the risk of lung cancer, as there is no known threshold below which radon exposure carries no risk. The dose-response relation is linear – for example, the risk of lung cancer increases proportionally with increasing radon exposure."

So to put it simply, there is no evidence of any truly safe levels for radon gas in homes. Any increased level in a home brings with it potential increased health risks.

Given the health risks, this should concern us all about the health of our city. I am in the camp of raising greater awareness and community engagement by all of us. I will explore this further, and we can dive deeper into testing, test results, recommendations, lung cancer rates, mitigation, and radon-proofing our city.

Until next time, I encourage you to start thinking about the quality of your indoor air and whether it poses a significant health risk to you, your family, and your neighbors. And to help spread awareness about this unknown danger in our community.

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Abdi Ahmed, of Rochester, is founder of Axlete .

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