ELLSWORTH, Maine — On a sunny morning, the eastern light inside the Branch Lake home of Ed and Mary Clift feels warm and relaxing.
The old log walls of the living room glow golden, lovingly preserved from the home’s historic past as the Branch Lake Lodge, a local summertime destination for two generations.
But down in the finished basement of the Clifts’ inviting lakeside home, workers are toiling to rectify a potentially deadly hazard — radon gas in the air and water.
According to the World Health Organization, radon recently has been identified as the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. The colorless, odorless, radioactive gas is found in the environment as part of the natural breakdown of uranium.
Radon is emitted by different kinds of rock, including granite and limestone. Insidiously, it seeps through cracks in stone and concrete foundations and accumulates in well water.
“I had always heard that if you had a lot of rock around, you should be concerned,” Ed Clift said.
Because workmen had blasted out several feet of solid granite ledge in order to pour a year-round foundation for the former Branch Lake Lodge, Clift decided in December to have his home checked for radon.
He wasn’t surprised at what he found.
Testing of houses urged
Ongoing exposure to radon has been strongly linked to lung cancer for five decades.
And Maine, which has among the highest rates of lung cancer in the nation, also has high levels of naturally occurring uranium, much of it embedded in the state’s trademark craggy ledges and granite outcroppings.
Additionally, according to census data, Mainers on average live in the same home for longer than residents of most other states — often for their entire lives.
For those whose homes are permeated with radon, the risk of developing lung cancer is significant and compounded if they are smokers or have other risk factors.
Public health experts and others say homes in Maine are a potent source of radon exposure.
“Every house in Maine should be tested,” said Bob Stillwell, radon coordinator for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
A simple air sampling kit, readily available for less than $20 from hardware stores, home improvement centers and various Internet sites, can determine the amount of radon gas in the air of living areas.
Radon in well water — not especially hazardous when water is used for drinking or cooking, but potentially deadly, over time, when water vapor is inhaled during showers and steamy baths — can also be measured easily.
Unsafe levels of radon may be found in any home, regardless of age or condition, Stillwell said, but newer homes, and those retrofitted for energy efficiency, are most likely to trap the gas in living areas where people can be affected.
But testing rates are low, Stillwell said — only about 10 percent of homes in Maine have been checked for radon, according to 2007 data.
That’s because radon’s invisibility makes it naturally easy to ignore, he said, and because it doesn’t cause illness right away and because the public health sector has not made it a priority.
“We’ve known radon has been a public health hazard for more than 50 years, but there hasn’t been a lot of money to deal with it,” Stillwell said.
That hasn’t changed; public health efforts often wither for lack of funding. But heightened awareness is driving a trend among real estate agents to encourage potential buyers to request radon testing before purchasing a home, Stillwell said.
Also, a new Maine law took effect in September 2009 requiring all residential rental units to be tested at landlord expense by 2012.
Homeowners who are uncomfortable with the sampling process can contract with a private company. Radon found in indoor air and well water can be reduced relatively inexpensively.
Results of home radon tests must be reported to the state if the home is for sale at the time of the testing. Rental property results must also be reported.
But homeowners like Ed Clift, who opt to test their properties for their own information, are not required to report the results to the state.
Lung cancer and radon
In January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization and the U.S. surgeon general teamed up to urge home testing for radon.
The groups estimate that as many as 8 million homes in the U.S. have elevated radon levels and predicts between 15,000 and 20,000 lung cancer deaths in 2010 related to radon exposure — more deaths than any other in-home hazard, including fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.
For reasons that are not well-understood, Maine has among the highest rates of cancer in the nation. High smoking rates in years past are the most commonly cited cause, but a number of other natural and manmade factors are also thought to drive the numbers.
In Maine, as in the nation, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. In women, breast cancer is the most common cancer. But for both men and women, cancer of the lung and bronchus is the second most common form of cancer, and it is the deadliest.
An estimated 1,390 Mainers were diagnosed with respiratory tract cancers in 2009, according to the American Cancer Society, and 980 died. That translates to a rate of 166 cases diagnosed in Maine for every 100,000 people compared to a national rate of 143, and 128 Maine deaths per 100,000 compared to a national average of 113.
There is no definitive way to determine the cause of an individual case of lung cancer. While cigarettes, for example, are known to be carcinogenic, not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer.
And many people who do get lung cancer have never smoked or even been exposed to secondhand smoke. In simple terms, that means that not everyone has the same vulnerability to the cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes or to other carcinogens. Researchers believe that at least some of that variation hinges on genetic makeup.
The relationship among environmental exposure, genetic makeup and disease is far from understood. But an evolving project between the Brewer-based Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health and the James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town aims to clarify the connections by mapping variables such as natural deposits of radon-emitting rock, state-compiled results of home radon testing and lung cancer cases.
The research institute also is collecting and storing tissue specimens from cancer patients so researchers can investigate an individual’s genetic makeup in relation to other risk factors.
But this is a long-term project. According to genetics institute director Janet Hock, there is already enough information to believe that radon poses a significant health risk in Maine.
“I worry about all the houses that never get on anyone’s map because they never get tested,” she said. “I would like to see every house in Maine tested for radon.”
Every home is different
For Ed Clift, the decision to test his home for radon was easy.
“My neighbor was trying to sell his house a little while ago and the buyer wanted him to test the water,” he said. “It was over the safe level.” Clift has no plans to sell his home, but his neighbor’s experience left him curious and a little concerned.
Air samples from two different areas inside the Clifts’ home identified radon levels at 4.3 and 5 picocuries per liter of air. Anything over 4 pCi/L is considered “actionable” by the federal EPA.
In the Clifts’ well water, testing found radon between 11,000 and 12,000 pCi/L, with an acceptable level of just 4,000 pCi/L.
Within a few weeks, workers from the Norlens Water Treatment company in Orrington — which also conducted the testing — were on the scene to get the radon out of the Clifts’ home.
They drilled a 5-inch hole in the concrete floor of his basement, installed plastic piping, and attached to it a continuous vacuum system that sucks radon out from under the floor and expels it harmlessly into the outside air.
They placed a 48-inch carbon-filled canister in the water line from the well to absorb the radon from the water.
They wrapped the canister in a thin layer of lead to keep the radiation inside from passing through the canister walls into the finished basement, where Clift exercises. They sealed the cover to his sump and caulked the expansion joints in the floor.
Tom Demaso of Norlens says the cost of mitigating a radon problem in a home’s air and water typically runs between $2,000 and $3,000, although every home is different. He thinks people are becoming more aware of radon as a health issue, as well as its impact on their home values.
For Clift, a retired bank executive, identifying and dealing with the radon problem is an extension of his health-conscious lifestyle.
“It’s part of my conservative banker’s nature,” he said.
The cost of the mitigation project at his home was $3,622, he said — significantly less than he had feared.
“I thought, ‘Oh, good Lord, it will probably be $10,000,’” he said. “I was quite pleasantly surprised.”
Results of air testing at the Clifts’ home after the mitigation showed the level of radon in the finished basement had dropped to 0.8 pCi/L. Water results were still pending.