Laura Longhurst gets emotional talking about her treatment for late-stage lung cancer. She never smoked and never lived in a home where anyone else did.
But she did breathe in radon gas — an odorless, tasteless, colorless poison — for years, not knowing that the homes where she lived in childhood and as an adult all contained high levels of the radioactive gas.
That same scenario is being lived by untold thousands of people in Utah who have no idea they are being poisoned, officials say. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer both locally and nationwide, after smoking. While Utah has the lowest rate of tobacco use in the nation, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Utah.
"If I had only been aware, I may have a different life today," Longhurst told reporters on Wednesday as she choked back tears. "We need action and not just awareness."
Her story was part of a press conference held in the Capitol rotunda, urging Utahns to have their homes tested for the deadly gas.
Dr. Wallace Akerley, a medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, said each year more than 20,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer caused by radon gas exposure. "That's more than die from melanoma, ovarian cancer and lots of other kinds of cancers that you hear a lot of warnings about," he said.
"The difference is, with some of those like breast cancer, most people survive and participate in marathons or other kinds of public events to raise awareness. With lung cancer, it's usually diagnosed in the late stages, and 85 percent of those with it die."
Though Akerley didn't know the number of Utahns whose cancer is caused by radon gas, he did say the risk may well be higher here, because most homes have basements with bedrooms.
The gas seeps into homes from decaying uranium in the soil, and is especially dangerous for children, whose bedrooms tend to be in the basement and "whose young lungs are at greater risk for developing cancer" than adults whose lungs have stopped growing.
As construction techniques have improved over time, homes are more likely to be well-insulated, creating negative pressure inside which actually draws the gas in through small cracks in a home's foundation, he said. But homes of any age are affected.
Christine Keyser, the state's radon control coordinator with the Utah Department of Health, said education is the key to cutting the number of lung cancer deaths in Utah, both now and in the future, since symptoms don't usually occur until the disease is in its late stages. "This is totally preventable if people will test their homes and take action," she said.
Radon test kits are available for $6 at the state's Web site — www.radon.utah.gov — and include supplies to do a 48-hour test for the gas as well as the cost of having it processed at a lab and receiving test results. Those without web access can call 1-800-324-5928.
Radon levels vary not only by geographic region, but from house to house, based on a number of factors, Keyser said. "Just because your neighbor's house has low levels of radon doesn't mean your house does. That's why everyone needs to test it in their own home," she said.
The state's Web site contains links that allow residents to see, by ZIP code, which areas have been identified as having higher concentrations of the gas among the homes tested there. Gas levels vary with the season and environmental conditions, so the EPA recommends testing every two years.
Keyser said some people have been wary of testing, fearing that if they find high levels of the gas, they won't be able to either fix the problem or sell their homes in the future. Certified contractors can fix the problem if one exists, usually for about $1,200, she said.
"That sounds like a lot of money, but if you compare it to the cost of treatment for lung cancer, there's no comparison," Keyser said.
The U.S. Surgeon General has recommended that all homeowners test their homes. "That's the only way to know if you have a problem."
After a recent survey done by the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, officials learned that 59 percent of the 497 respondents had heard of radon, but only 20 percent were able to answer four basic questions about it. Only 12.5 percent said their homes had been tested for the gas.
Renters knew even less about radon, and none of those surveyed knew if the homes or apartments they live in had ever been tested for it.