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Researchers working to identify GA neighborhoods with dangerous levels of cancer-causing gas

ATLANTA — A gas you can’t see, taste, or smell is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US and is found in homes right here in metro Atlanta.

Georgia State University researchers are now working to identify which north Georgia neighborhoods could be at higher risk for dangerous levels of radon gas.

Currently, the only way to know if your home is at risk is to test the level of radon gas in your home.

When realtor Danielle Pen᷉a bought her Roswell home last year, she did everything she recommends for her clients, including testing for radon.

“I have four children live(ing) here and we have pets,” Pen᷉a said. “We just wanted to make sure that we were living in a safe environment.”

Pen᷉a’s home tested nearly three times the healthy limit.

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“It’s just important, I guess, for your family’s health and peace of mind,” she said.

Georgia State University computer science professor Dr. Ashwin Ashok said he didn’t know about radon or how little it was researched until a water cooler conversation with a GSU colleague.

“So this really piqued my interest to see, OK, why can’t we just sense this thing and maybe we can even build a prediction model?” Ashok said.

As rocks below Earth’s surface decay and break down, they create radioactive radon gas.

With a National Science Foundation and US Department of Agriculture grant, GSU and Georgia Perimeter College researchers use sensors at Stone Mountain Park to measure how radon reacts to heat, humidity, and rainfall.

“There’s been a little bit of research done many years ago, but we need to use modern detectors and find out everything we can,” said Georgia Perimeter geology professor Dr. Pamela Gore.

Gore said we breathe low levels of radon every day but when gas is trapped in home basements and crawlspaces, radon levels can become dangerously high.

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“We inhale these small radon particles that then degrade and emit bursts of energy that damage the DNA in the lining of our lung cells,” said Dr. Jennifer Carlisle with Emory University Winship Cancer Institute.

Carlisle said radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer, behind smoking. The gas is blamed for an estimated 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the US each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Carlisle said illness from exposure can take decades. “The DNA damage from radon can take a while to show up, anywhere from five to 25 years,” she said.

But not all rocks create radon equally. Geological maps of north Georgia show how diverse rocks across the state are.

Since high radon levels are found all over Georgia, researchers are studying if homes built near certain types of rock are at higher risk.

GSU students and staff members are testing radon levels in their own homes and comparing the reading to the type of rocks in their neighborhoods.

“We’re just doing the research right now to try to determine maybe which types of rock will have the highest radon,” Gore said.

A high radon level is scary but fixable.

Radon mitigation specialist James Fraley with Elite Radon Team installed fans and pipe networks in Pen᷉a’s home to help keep radioactive gas out.

“I think the biggest challenge is educating people on radon and letting people know that if your house has radon, it can be fixed,” Fraley said.

Pen᷉a’s system cost about $2,800 to install. She said it was worth every dime.

“We felt better about knowing that it was there. We’re going to have a system because you’ll know that going forward that the radon will always be taken care of,” Pen᷉a said.

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