Get your home tested for radon

Erik Kvale

How would you like to smoke half a pack of cigarettes a day without ever putting a cigarette in your mouth? Worse yet, how would like your kids or grandkids to smoke without lighting up? That’s what was happening to my wife and me in the three years we have been retired and living east of Shell. It turns out that our house had elevated levels of radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that is invisible and has no odor or taste. It is the biproduct of the natural decay of uranium. In high enough concentrations, it can have a negative impact on a person’s health. In fact, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, it is the leading cause of lung cancer in people who don’t smoke. Recent assessments by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest that annual U.S. deaths from radon-induced lung cancer hovers around those attributed to leukemia and lymphoma at just over 21,000. Several decades of research supports this conclusion.
Two years ago, at the most recent all-class reunion, the Buffalo Roundup, I had the opportunity to play a round of golf with a good friend and two classmates who I hadn’t seen since 1974 when we all graduated from Greybull High School. At that time, those two former classmates told me they had undergone surgeries to treat lung cancer including partial lung removals. One of these friends mentioned that he never smoked a day in his life. Sadly, both passed away last year from their cancers. Both were far too young to have suffered this fate. If one looks at the EPA statistics of dying from radon-related lung cancer, at the levels recorded in our house, that rate is small, around 1 out of 100. For a current smoker it is about 10 out of 100. For people exposed to secondhand smoke, the chances are somewhere in between. I was chatting about this with a local fellow who pointed out that he was in his 80s and had lived a full life and didn’t figure he would worry about it. It’s hard to argue that point, but who knows who the canaries in the coal mine are? My two friends could have been those canaries.
Radon remediation is fairly straightforward. A certified remediation technician from Billings took care of the three houses occupied by my wife and me and my two aunts and an uncle in two trips to Shell. The cost for each house ranged from $1,300 to $2,750. Seems like a small price to pay to remove one more potential environmental hazard from our lives, especially with kids and grandkids visiting.
If you want to know what your radon levels are, the Wyoming Department of Health offers free test kits through the Wyoming Cancer Program. The online website is or you can call 1-800-264-1296. These kits are easy to use, take about three days to conduct and include free mailing to the lab for analysis. Your results are available just a few days after you mail the kit to the lab.
I’m a geologist with many years of research experience in sedimentary rocks. Over the years, I have recommended to friends and acquaintances that they test their homes for radon if they lived over black, organic-rich shales like much of Greybull does as well as the Greybull Heights and the Scharen Subdivision. I know from my work in the oil and gas industry that black shales give a nice gamma “kick” on gamma-ray detecting tools. My wife and I live on Shell Creek alluvium that has cut down into the red siltstones of the Chugwater Formation. This is not a unit that is very radioactive, but the fact of the matter is that radon can accumulate in homes that exist almost anywhere, in homes that are drafty or well-sealed, in homes with basements or crawl-spaces.  It costs nothing to learn what your risks are and those of the people who live with you. There really isn’t much of a reason to not put a radon remediation system in a new house or even in an old one.   
(Erik Kvale is a Greybull native, a retired geologist and a resident of Shell)