Every year more than 20,000 Americans are diagnosed with a terminal disease caused by a radioactive gas known as radon. Experts say in most cases those people didn't even realize they were being exposed to the gas, or that it was happening right in their homes. While deadly if left untreated, they say it can easily be fixed.
Radon -- it's odorless, tatsteless, colorless, and deadly.
"It is the second leading cause of lung cancer, first for non-smokers," said Anna Maylett Rice, Mesa County Indoor Air Quality Specialist.
Health experts from Montrose to Mesa County say it's all around us here in Western Colorado. They say radon forms as uranium decomposes below the ground -- and because the Western Slope has a lot of uranium in the ground naturally, the chances of residents being exposed to radon is much higher than other parts of the country.
"We're the seventh most probable state to have high radon in your home," said Richard Thompson, Montrose County Environmental Health Manager.
Experts say no matter where you live or what you do, there will always be some radon.
"The house acts like a vacuum and basically sucks up the gas from the soil down below," said Rice.
But it only becomes dangerous when people are exposed to high levels of the gas. Radon is measured in pico curies per liter of air. The Environmental Protection Agency says as long as there's less than 4 pCi/L of radon in your home, you're fine. But if levels are at or above 4, you need to take action.
"The only way to know is if you test," said Thompson.
The Mesa and Montrose County Departments of Health have tested hundreds of homes over the past several years. They say the results have been eye opening.
In Montrose County, about 45 percent of the homes tested in 2008 came back with radon levels greater than 4 pCi/L. The average level in those homes was 11.3 pCi/L.
"If that's not a statistic that gets your attention, it certainly gets mine," said Thompson.
In Mesa County, 36 percent of the homes tested in 2008 had elevated levels of radon. While the average level in those homes was only 4.3 pCi/L, officials say that doesn't mean the issue of radon should be taken lightly.
"We have seen highs in Mesa County up to one-hundred twenty-four pico curies," said Rice.
Officials say it's because of numbers like these they urge everyone to test their homes. Test kits are available at both the Mesa County and Montrose County Health Departments and cost $5 -- a price, experts say is much less costly than a human life.
It's something Montrose resident Karen Connor learned first hand.
"I knew that radon was a danger, but I wasn't aware of all that," said Connor.
After going to a radon awareness presentation, she got one of the kits and used it in her home.
"We tested it down in the basement where it would eventually be a living area," said Connor. "We found the radon level was fourteen, which was pretty high."
Health officials say it takes years of exposure to high radon levels to develop lung cancer. Because Connor tested her home and detected it early on, they say she likely won't be one of the 1,400 Coloradans who are diagnosed with radon related lung cancer each year.
"You're never scared by the numbers you have because it can be fixed," said Larry Falken, owner of Western Slope Home Inspections.
Falken has been working on Western Slope homes with high levels of radon for nine years. He's been certified by the National Environmental Health Association to do a process called radon mitigation.
"Basically, it just entails removing the gas to the outside," said Falken. "It's done through a pump."
He says the pump runs down through a series of pipes that go below the home, drastically reducing the amount of radon inside.
"I had one that was well over one hundred," said Falken. "The mitigation was difficult, but we got it down to two pico curies after I finished."
Falken says the mitigation process can cost anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000 -- but that he and other mitigators are pretty flexible when it comes to payment plans.
"Right now I have three projects I'm just taking monthly payments on," said Falken.
After doing mitigation on her home, Connor's radon levels shot down to below 2 pCi/L. Although it set her back a couple bucks, she says it was well worth it.
"We will be living down there and we have grandchildren that come to visit and they were sleeping in the basement," said Connor. "I just feel much more comfortable."
A feeling health officials say all Western Slope residents should want.
"Once you finally discover that you have this cancer growing in your lungs for a period of time, it's too late to go back," said Thompson.
Officials say there are no hot spots for high levels of radon -- they see elevated homes all over the place. They also say high radon levels are hit or miss -- that they've seen many cases where one home had extreme levels of radon and all the surrounding houses had very low levels.
They recommend testing once every two years.
For more information on radon, testing, and mitigation click on the links below: