The statistics about radon exposure and lung cancer in Colorado are sobering: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the state, and radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer, after tobacco smoke.
“Colorado is among the top 10 states with the highest radon levels across the country, and about 50% of homes in Colorado have radon levels that are higher than the recommended level set by the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Jan Lowery, PhD, assistant director for dissemination and implementation in the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach and Engagement (COE).
Exposure is everywhere
Radon — an invisible, odorless, radioactive gas that is naturally produced by the breakdown of uranium — is particularly prevalent in Colorado because of the amount of uranium in the soil. In the 1940s and ’50s, Colorado was a key site for uranium mining. Today, any house built on soil — particularly houses with basements — are vulnerable to radon exposure that could potentially cause lung cancer.
“My house is built on a basement, and radon can seep in either through the sump pump or any small breaks or cracks in the walls,” says José Barrón, senior community outreach and engagement coordinator in COE. “When it gets stuck in our homes and we constantly breathe it in, it can get lodged in the cells in our lungs and release radioactive energy into the cells. That eventually causes them to mutate and develop cancer.”
Addressing the problem
To raise awareness of the issue and help economically disadvantaged Coloradans begin the process of testing for radon and mitigating their exposure, if necessary, the COE in spring 2023 began distributing free radon test kits at 365 Health Fairs around the state. Participants place the kits in their homes for 90 days, then mail them to a lab for analysis.
COE members are there every step of the way to help community members through the process.
“Anything that our office does in terms of community outreach and engagement, we always want to complete the full continuum of care,” Barrón says. “In this case, we call to make sure that they started the test and that it is in the proper area. Once the testing period is done, we also call them to remind them to turn it in.”
If the test reveals radon levels higher than the recommended allowable level, the COE helps connect participants with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which offers low-income radon mitigation assistance.
Outreach to reduce cancer
The COE over the past year has given out stool-based colorectal cancer detection kits at health fairs and similar events; adding the radon kits is just another prevention measure the office is using to lower the cancer burden in Colorado, Lowery says.
“Most people that we speak to at fairs are curious about radon levels in their homes, but they have never taken action to complete a test,” she says. “It’s good to give them those resources.”
It’s important to educate the public on the risks of radon exposure, Lowery says, because of the high prevalence of radon in Colorado and the associated cancer risk, and because we can do something about it.
“We can’t always control risk,” she says. “A lot of things in our environment cause cancer, but this is something we can actually mitigate. There are ways to do it, and it’s relatively affordable. Our team is trying to assist people who can’t afford it to test for radon and find resources to reduce exposure in their homes.”