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A Few Clouds
Cancer victim mourns 20,000 deaths from radon
MILWAUKEE -- Elizabeth Hoffmann has been in and out of hospitals and labs, being poked and prodded, for more than eight years, since the non-smoker was diagnosed with lung cancer because, she says, of an unsafe home.
Hoffmann says her diagnosis was baffling; at the time, she was 37 years old, healthy, and had never smoked or even been around second-hand smoke.
Hoffman says she went to her doctor with a persistent, dry cough that she thought was caused by allergies. But she says her doctor ordered a chest x-ray and found a five-centimeter malignant tumor in her lung.
Hoffman says a cousin who is a nurse unlocked the mystery behind her diagnosis by suggesting she test for radon in her Milwaukee home where she has lived for 22 years.
"It came back at 8.6 picocuries, which is more than twice the action level," noted Hoffmann. “Yeah, it's radon. There's no other reason for me to have lung cancer."
So she took action by hiring specialist Tom Heine to install a radon abatement system.
But she says the damage had already been done, by what she describes as an invisible, odorless, radioactive gas she had never heard of, though it causes 20,000 deaths a year in the United States according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – more than drunk driving, drownings and home fires combined!
“They're all preventable. Well, maybe not all of them, but certainly most are preventable," explained Dr. John Moulder, Director of the Center for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiological Terrorism at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Three years after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation got rid of Hoffman's cancer, she says it returned. "Two separate doctors told me I had weeks or months to live," recalled Hoffmann.
That's why home inspector Doug Hensiak suggests a radon test while checking out any home his clients are planning to buy.
Hensiak said he performs about 100 radon tests a year, and "I would say over 50 percent" show unsafe levels in the home.
The state department of health says between five and ten percent of all homes in Wisconsin have radon levels above the EPA guideline of four picocuries -- on the main floor.
But Heine said half of all Wisconsin homes have a radon problem, because the basement usually has higher levels.
So CBS 58 brought Heine and his test kit to Jerry and Terri Medinger's home in Waukesha, identified by the EPA as one of the state's high-risk areas.
Terri works part-time framing pictures in her basement and says she hadn't thought of getting a radon test since buying the home six years earlier, though she had done one in her previous home in Milwaukee.
“It's something you don't smell; you don't think of it. You just come down and do your work. It's not like you're breathing different," said Terri.
They were shocked and concerned when the test revealed a level of 9.6 picocurries in Terri's basement workshop.
"That's really high. That's very high. That's very high!" exclaimed Terri.
“Who would know?" added Jerry.
“So now you know!" replied Heine.
“I've been working down here five years without knowing this," lamented Terri.
Heine said the Medingers can virtually eliminate their future risk of radon exposure with a mitigation system, which reduced radon below one picocurie in Hoffmann's house.
That's why Heine wants mandatory testing for all home sales and radon resistant building requirements for all new construction, so no one else will have to lose a mother to radon-induced lung cancer as he did.
"You get over the death of a family member and decide you want to get involved with the issue," said Heine.
He says Wisconsin has no laws mandating or regulating radon testing or remediation, just an obligation by home sellers to reveal any known problems about this misunderstood gas that the National Academy of Sciences says is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
"It can be any type of home -- brick, aluminum, new, old, basement, slab, anything," said Hoffmann.
Now in the midst of her fourth round of chemotherapy that spread more worry among her family, Hoffmann is spreading awareness of radon by spearheading a group of cancer survivors dedicated to saving lives through radon education.
Hoffmann's cancer forced her to quit her marketing director job, but she's using her career skills to build up the Cancer Survivors Against Radon (CanSAR) group.
"I believe things happen for a reason. My reason is to share my story, so that people know: Radon is real; the dangers from radon are real, and you can test your home," said Hoffmann.
A do-it-yourself radon test kit costs as little as $15 online or $25 at a local health department or $40 at a hardware store.
The cost for remediation can run anywhere from $500 up to $2500 in rare instances depending on the size of the house --- seemingly insignificant compared to the price victims are paying every day.
Many know little about radon, even in southern Wisconsin, where the risk is higher than other areas of the country according to the EPA.
"The seller was supposed to tell us about radon or the importance of testing for radon, but they never did,” recalled Hoffmann.
Hoffmann says the radon mitigation system installed after she got cancer took her home's level down below the 2.7 picocurries considered acceptable.
Hensiak agreed that radon testing should be required when a house is sold, because he says many people spend lots of time in a basement family room.
Wisconsin is not one of the six states in the country mandating radon-resistance in new construction.
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