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COLUMBUS — A radioactive gas lingers beneath the Nebraska soil, often reaching toxic levels after seeping through building foundations.

Radon is a naturally-occurring gas that originates from uranium in the earth’s crust. Prolonged exposure to it can cause lung cancer, killing 21,000 people annually, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It ranks as the second-leading cause of lung cancer overall and highest among non-smokers.

Nebraska sits at third nationally for prevalence of radon in homes.

According to Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NDHHS) test results from 1990-2009, the average level of radon picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) in the state’s homes and other buildings was 5.9, 1.9 pCi/L more than the EPA-set health standard for human exposure.

“The data supports what we’ve known for some time,” said Sara Morgan, indoor air quality program manager at NDHHS. “Nebraska homes are very likely to have high levels of radon.”

While radon “hot spots” exist in northeast and southeast portions of the state — largely because of geologic soil patterns — only 30 counties, including Merrick, hold a test average below EPA standards.

Fifty-seven percent of the 70,000 statewide tests returned results higher than 4 pCi/L, with the largest reading coming in at 203 pCi/L.

In Columbus, 733 tests during the 20-year span revealed a mean pCi/L of 4.5, including a high reading of 36.8. Forty-two percent of those tests exceeded the 4 pCi/L limit.

“We have seen high levels of radon in all different structures,” said Morgan, meaning the age or style of a building doesn’t necessarily increase or decrease the likelihood of infiltration.

Also not a factor is the building’s location, as radon levels vary within counties, cities and neighborhoods.

Because overexposure to the gas can’t be detected in the human body until lung cancer has developed, a short-term radon test remains the only way to detect a possible risk.

“That’s why radon is a bit tricky: It’s odorless, it’s colorless, it’s tasteless,” said Morgan. “There’s no way to know it’s in your home unless you do that special test.”

This process, Morgan says, is quite simple.

Short-term radon testing kits can be purchased at home-supply or hardware stores, online or through NDHHS. Locally, they are available free of charge at East Central District Health Department’s (ECDHD) 3806 Howard Boulevard location.

ECDHD issued 69 radon testing kits to residents in Nance, Boone and Colfax counties from January through September of last year and 218 to those in Platte County.

Testing kits should be placed in a home or building’s lowest level for two to seven days before being mailed to a state laboratory where the kit is analyzed.

Roberta Miksch, ECDHD interim deputy director and environmental health coordinator, said now is a good time to do this testing, as doors and windows often remain closed during the winter months.

If it’s the first time testing a home or building, Morgan suggests doing a follow-up test to confirm the results. After that, testing is only needed after major renovations, she said.

When high radon levels are discovered, a mitigation system should be installed. These systems vary in cost, from $800 to $2,000 depending on a structure’s size and foundation, and consist of a PVC pipe running from a hole in the foundation that contains a fan constantly moving radon out through the roof.

Similar systems also can be installed during construction.

“Mitigation systems are probably not installed as often as we would like to see,” said Morgan.

Even after a mitigation system is installed, homes and buildings should be tested every two years.

“Radon tends to be a problem in our state,” Morgan said. “For that reason we really want people to test their homes. People can really reduce their risk of lung cancer by taking those steps.”

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