July 11, 2006 -- Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer---attributable to an estimated 20,000 deaths in the United States per year from exposure to the gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When homeowners need to test their property for the invisible substance, they often think of picking up the local phonebook, flipping to a category like "radon detection," and calling a contractor directly. At last month's Health Physics Society meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, however, a scientist described an alternative program that provided convenient, impartial, and cost-effective assistance from an unlikely source: the local university.
Calling the nearest institute of higher learning for help on radon issues might seem as effective as contacting the local lumber yard for advice on a plumbing problem. But beyond its prestigious libraries with stacks upon stacks of seemingly arcane books are the people who work amidst them, employees like health physicist Tom Mohaupt of Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio.
What could a local university campus and its people like Tom Mohaupt do to help homeowners deal with a radon issue? A lot, it turns out, thanks to the wealth of knowledge that Mohaupt and his co-workers have acquired about radon.
As part of his job as Wright State Radiation Safety Officer, Tom Mohaupt performs radon tests on the premises of Wright State University. But Mohaupt decided to share his expertise beyond the campus walls. He knew radon was a subject of legitimate concern in the community.
"Here in the Miami Valley of Ohio, a residence having elevated radon levels is hit or miss. Some people wanted to test for radon because their neighbors had elevated radon levels," he says.
Meanwhile, Mohaupt was regularly reading long government reports from the likes of the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences. Mohaupt realized that he could translate the important points in these reports into language that everyone could understand.
In talking with his neighbors the scientist quickly learned where to start. The question he got most often was: What is radon? He designed a simple answer. "Radon is a gas, and a gas is free to travel just about anywhere," he says. Radon comes from the earth, starting out as solid uranium. "Uranium eventually decays to radium which then decays to radon, an inert gas," he explains, which can seep from the soil to the nooks and crannies of a home's foundation. Once radon gas is inside the home, residents can breathe the radioactive substance into their lungs.
January had been declared "Radon Action Month." Wright State chose January to offer radon detector detectors to the campus community. They would order quality, long-term radon detectors in bulk so that residents could buy them at a volume discount.
Mohaupt is quick to mention that he is not the one to come out to a house. Radon testing equipment is installed either by the homeowner or someone who is a professionally licensed installer, he says.
Still, homeowners typically call professionals directly or buy any do-it-yourself kit that happens to be on the shelf at a local hardware store. Wright State University found itself in a position to break that mold.
Rather than advising residents to obtain inexpensive or even free short-term testing kits, Mohaupt encouraged homeowners to buy equipment that can test radon levels over long periods of time.
The problem with short-term testing kits, explains Mohaupt, is that there are many variables that can literally waver on a daily basis. "Short-term tests provide only a snapshot of the radon present, which can vary significantly due to the time of day, season, ventilation, weather, suspended dust or smoke, soil composition beneath the home, and many other factors," he says.
While the long-term testing kits were more expensive, he says they're worth it.
"This is a more proactive system. If you're in the middle of a real estate deal then you have to do the short-term test," he says. "But if you're just thinking long-term--5 or 6 years--then the long term test is just incomparable," he says. "If you test for a year and you have information that the radon level is low, then that is good information, very valuable to the homeowner and purchaser."
But first he had to gauge the level of interest in the community.
Mohaupt and his colleagues emailed the announcement about "Radon Action Month" to university staff, faculty, students, and retirees, but anyone in the local area was welcome to participate. Sure enough, university employees shared information about the program with their friends, families and neighbors. Some ordered radon detectors for their loved ones, and "we encouraged that," Mohaupt says. In turn, they provided more participants for Mohaupt to get better discounts on the kits with vendors.
"If only we had 10 participants it would be abysmal, if we had 30 it would be successful, but we ended up with 160 resident participants," he says.
"We were pleasantly surprised at the program's success," Mohaupt says. The kits supplied everything residents needed to perform the test, including general information on radon and testing directions.
Answering additional questions from residents by phone, Mohaupt calmed their worries by providing information while directing them to literature and online resources. He was pleased, he says, by how the residents quickly warmed up to him. "One thing that helped is the fact that the people felt more comfortable asking lots of questions of someone at a college," he says.
For the success, Mohaupt credits the phenomenal amount of volunteer participation from fellow university employees. An announcement in the departmental newsletter and campus listservers boosted participation.
He says that other universities or large organizations can give a program like this a try.
"One of the major benefits in offering this kind of service is it's positive PR," he says, as community residents can experience their local college as a friendly, helpful, approachable place.
One of the most gratifying things, Mohaupt says, is how other people began to appreciate Mohaupt's profession. Previously, even many of his professional colleagues did not know or understand exactly what Mohaupt did as a health physicist and radiation safety officer. But thanks to this program, they got a better idea.
Mohaupt jokes that people calling him with questions were setting themselves up. "You never ask a physicist 'Why?'," he says, as they might get a long, detailed answer. But for those who got to know Tom, they realized that it was probably okay.
The Health Physics Society consists of over 5,000 radiation safety professionals whose activities include ensuring safe and beneficial uses of radiation and radioactive materials, assisting in the development of standards and regulations, and communicating radiation safety information.
The Society is a nonprofit organization formed in 1956. Its primary mission is excellence in the science and practice of radiation safety. The Society has members in approximately 70 countries, and has established nearly 45 chapters and 10 student branches. Visit www.hps.org for more information.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Map of Radon Zones
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