Contrary to the advice given by state experts, local health officials Tuesday urged Los Angeles County homeowners to test their dwellings for radon, claiming that 50 to 100 lives a year could be saved by uncovering excessive concentrations of the invisible, cancer-causing gas.
The advice comes nearly two years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the surgeon general’s office suggested that virtually every homeowner and lower-floor apartment dweller nationwide test their residences for radon. But scientists and state officials in California and elsewhere have questioned the need for such massive testing, contending that it be limited to areas suspected of having high concentrations of radon.
In making the recommendation Tuesday, county health experts surveyed data collected in studies by The Times and private laboratories in the last three years. Of 1,860 homes surveyed by the county Department of Health Services, about 2.2% had radon levels exceeding federal standards.
“Historically, Los Angeles hasn’t been viewed as a high radon problem area because compared to other places in the country, we don’t have as much radon,” Dr. Paul Papanek Jr., county toxics epidemiology program chief, said at a press conference. “But the problem with radon is that it is . . . just such a potent carcinogen that it doesn’t take very much to get your attention.”
Papanek and leaders of the American Lung Assn. of Los Angeles County stressed that residents should not be alarmed because local radon levels, even in areas where they exceed national standards, are not nearly as high as in some other parts of the nation.
Rather, they said, precautions should be taken because they are relatively inexpensive compared to potential health risks. Radon, a naturally occuring radioactive gas, is believed to be the second-most frequent cause of lung cancer in the United States.
Simple home detection kits are available at most hardware stores for $15 to $25, lung association officials said. The best kits include small measuring devices which are mailed to a private lab for analysis.
Homes with excessive amounts of radon can generally be repaired for about $1,000--by ventilating crawl spaces or sealing cracks in slab foundations, according to Papanek. Typically, the gas seeps up from the ground and into dwellings.
“Certainly if you look at the cost of things that we all do for safety--installing smoke detectors and putting seat belts on our families, this is at least as cost effective as that,” Papanek said.
But not all experts agreed with such assessments.
Anthony V. Nero, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and a leading authority on radon, said Papanek’s suggestion appeared to be “an ill-focused effort.
“Recommending that everyone worry about radon is causing people who shouldn’t be concerned about it to worry about it,” Nero said. “Most of the houses (with problems) are clustered . . . we need a focused effort finding places with high numbers.”
Although he was not available for comment, state Health Director Kenneth Kizer has repeatedly objected to calls for mass testing, saying that available data indicates California has a small radon problem.
The EPA has estimated that between 8 million and 12 million households nationally have excessive radon levels and that the radioactive gas may cause between 5,000 and 20,000 lung-cancer deaths each year. Smokers who are exposed to radon run 15 times the risk of lung cancer, according to radiation specialists.
The EPA has recommended that residents take steps to reduce radon when it exceeds four picocuries per liter of air--an exposure equivalent to 200 to 300 chest X-rays a year.
In Los Angeles County, 2.2% of homes exceed the limit, but none had a higher level than 11.9 picocuries, according to Papanek. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where extensive radon problems have been uncovered, levels in some instances have reached nearly 100 times the federal limit.
Papanek said the estimate of 50 to 100 lives saved per year is based on federal lung cancer risk assessments as well as the supposition that once a radon problem is discovered, residents will bring their homes well below the federal limit.