May 27, 2018
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Radon, lead, blood pressure: Do you know your numbers?

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

Lately, my world is dominated by numbers — these numbers: 0.4, 16.7 and 133/76. It began in November when my blood pressure, previously under control, started to rise again. This might have had something to do with another number on my bathroom scale, which I don’t care to mention.

By Thanksgiving, my blood pressure readings were creeping up to 150/92. That qualified me for Stage 1 hypertension. Again.

The doctor told me to take my blood pressure at home. And I did. But here’s the funny thing about blood pressure: sometimes, there is a direct correlation between the hum of the Omron cuff and the numbers rising on the screen. They call this “white coat hypertension.” Only, if there aren’t any “white coats” at home, high readings are, theoretically, high readings.

In November, the only way I could get a good reading (doctors say we should all aim for 120s/70s) was if I emptied my bladder first, sat straight, uncrossed my legs, shooed away the children, took 20 deep breaths until my head felt light, and (most importantly) didn’t look at the screen. So for about 1 minute out of the day, I had good blood pressure. The rest of the day, I was a walking frowny-face from those pain charts in the doctor’s office.

The doctor doubled my medicine, and like magic, the numbers started to fall, even when I took my blood pressure after yelling at the kids to get out the door on a school morning. My version of an extreme sport: finding the absolute worst time possible to take my blood pressure.

I relaxed again.

Then one night, I was playing Word with Friends with CNN on the television for background noise. Something caught my attention. Anchor Don Lemon was interviewing NFL linebacker Chris Draft about his wife who died of lung cancer one month after their wedding. Keasha Draft was not a smoker. So how did she get lung cancer?

She grew up in a home that had too much radon gas. According to the EPA, radon — an odorless, tasteless gas — is responsible for 21,000 deaths each year. That’s more than from drunk driving, drownings and home fires.

I put down Words with Friends as my stomach turned in knots. Could we have too much radon? I dared myself to take my blood pressure, as I could feel my heart beating in my throat. But then I decided to do something more productive: I searched online for someone to test our home.

Reese Perkins arrived with a black box that looked like a camera. He put it in our basement and said he would be back to retrieve it in three days. I eyed the box each time I went to get our laundry. What news would that box deliver, I wondered, and I could feel my blood pressure go up.

When Reese returned and evaluated the box, he had good news. Our home’s average radon measurement is 0.4 picocuries per liter of air, or pCi/L. The EPA suggests radon mitigation for any home that measures 4.0 pCi/L or above.

My blood pressure dropped again.

Then, for reasons I will never understand, I asked Reese, “Do you test water for lead, too?”

Dustin rolled his eyes.

“Oh, geez, let it go,” he said. “Are you looking for something to worry about?”

Reese left with a sample of water.

According to the EPA, lead is unlikely to be in source water because the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act regulates our supplies. But older homes with lead pipes, which are now banned, might have a problem if the lead leaches into the water. And ingesting lead is a big problem. Especially for children.

Warning: if you Google “lead effects on children,” you will call to get your water tested as soon as possible.

But get this: lead exposure can cause high blood pressure in adults.

The EPA suggests that any water testing higher than 15 parts per billion, or ppb, for lead is not suitable to drink. Three days later, Reese gave us our results: 16.7 ppb.

I glared at Dustin. He looked like he wished I hadn’t let Reese leave with a sample of water, because he knew what was coming next: I was going to get everyone’s blood checked. More waiting. More numbers. More worry.

Step away from the blood pressure machine, Sarah.

People like me (the polite term is people with “health anxiety”) get frustrated with the medical field, which never deals in absolutes, only percentages and chopped up numbers such as 0.4 and 16.7, or blood pressure readings that are not static over time. You can’t pin these people down for a guarantee on anything.

But as Reese said, you don’t know how to fight until you know what you’re up against. We have lead in our pipes, but little radon. I have high blood pressure that requires medicine. All right, I’m dealing with these. Lead is nothing that a week’s earnings-worth of bottled water won’t fix.

So I’m a 133/76 (on a good day), 0.4 pCi/L, 16.7 ppb kind of gal.

Do you know your numbers?

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at

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