The coughing started in the late spring of 2016. Doug Clarke, a math teacher at H.C. Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden, figured he had caught something going around the school, as students were often sick at that time of year.
But this cough lingered, and Clarke, an active and health-conscious 52-year-old volunteer firefighter in Rocky Hill, felt his stamina being sapped. His lungs couldn’t take in air the way they normally did, and he was uncharacteristically out of breath on walks he took with his wife, Wendy. His doctor did a chest X-ray and, believing Clarke had pneumonia, prescribed antibiotics and steroids. When Clarke didn’t improve for a few weeks, the dosage of the medication was upped.
Clarke didn’t get better.
In July Clarke was referred to a pulmonologist who did a bronchoscopy and CT scan, which showed that he had small-cell lung cancer. The news came as a shock to Clarke, a lifelong nonsmoker who had never worked in an industry that would have put him at risk for this type of cancer. As he wondered what factors may have contributed to the disease, a neighbor asked him if his house had ever been checked for radon.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is formed by decaying uranium. Colorless, odorless and tasteless, it occurs underground and readily moves through voids in rocks and soils. When it is released outdoors, radon levels pose a low threat to human health. But when released indoors through cracks in house foundations and other openings, the gas can be sealed in, causing prolonged exposure, particularly in colder months when houses are closed off. Though exposure to radon does not directly cause any symptoms, it can, and frequently does, lead to cancer. Radon is the leading nonsmoking cause of lung cancer in the U.S., and the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates it causes more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths in the nation each year.
Allison Perry Sullivan, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Public Health and the agency’s lead on radon, called the gas “the largest environmental health risk in Connecticut.”
Because the state does not currently have a law requiring the reporting of radon-mitigation contracts, or lung cancer cases in which radon exposure is suspected as a contributing factor, quantifying the impact of the gas in Connecticut is difficult. However, Sullivan says it is not uncommon in the state. “Most of Connecticut is in a high potential zone for radon, but radon can be found anywhere there is uranium in the soil and rock,” she says. “The only way to know if you have radon is to actually do a test. You can’t test the air before building a house. You have to wait till a house is ready for occupation before a test can be done.”
Two houses right next to each other may have different radon levels, and although there are areas of the state where radon risks are thought to be higher, there are no areas where there is no risk of the gas being present. It is recommended that you test the lowest occupied floor; so crawl spaces or a basement where you just do laundry need not be tested, but basements where you spend more than a few hours a day or plan on spending several hours a day in the future should be tested.
The good news is that radon tests are inexpensive and fairly easy to administer. “You can call your local health department to see if they have free radon test kits available, as some do, and one can always call the American Lung Association at 1-800-LUNG-USA for a $14 test,” Sullivan says.
The tests take a minimum of 48 hours and then must be sent to a lab for analysis. For homes with increased levels of radiation — at or above 4 picocuries per liter — remediation is recommended. The DPH lists licensed radon-remediation contractors on its website (ct.gov/dph). “The average cost [of mitigation] is $1,200 and, well, that’s a chunk of change,” says Ruth Canovi, director of public policy for the Connecticut branch of the American Lung Association. “In terms of the impact it can have on your lung health, it’s a worthwhile investment.”
Sullivan says, “If you’ve been involved in a real estate transaction in Connecticut, then most likely you’re aware of radon because it’s a law to disclose radon when selling the home. Most home inspectors will encourage a buyer to consider a radon test and most mortgage companies require a radon test to be completed before the mortgage is approved.”
Still, not everyone gets a radon test before occupying a home.
When Clarke and his wife had their house built in Rocky Hill in 1997, they were told they didn’t need to test for radon and decided not to. In the aftermath of Clarke’s diagnosis, they ran tests and found “above background levels of the gas.”
According to the American Lung Association, it is technically not possible to confirm whether a person’s cancer is radon induced. In Clarke’s case, however, “it seems likely to have been a factor.”
Ironically, Clarke has long been associated with efforts to raise funds for lung cancer research. He has participated in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb five times since 2011. The stair climb is a grueling trek up the 34-story Hartford 21, one of Connecticut’s tallest buildings. Clarke has made the climb along with his fellow firefighters from Rocky Hill and other area towns on the team Fire Task Force 51. Last April, shortly before he started having symptoms of lung cancer, he posted his best time.
Since last July, Clarke has undergone six rounds of chemotherapy, and about seven weeks of radiation treatment. He says his strength is returning and he has begun walking the hills in his neighborhood again. He is determined to be in Hartford on April 22 and participate in the climb. This year will, of course, be different. “All of a sudden I went from climbing for other people to really, in a lot of ways, climbing for myself. It’s been a very challenging six-plus months now,” he says.“I signed up for the climb right about the time I started my first round of chemo. It’s the way I stayed positive.”
People can donate to Clarke’s climb online by visiting action.lung.org/goto/Doug51. Clark has also became something of a poster boy for the American Lung Association here in Connecticut. “I am gratefully and willingly taking that banner. I’ve wanted to help and I’ve tried to help over the past few years, but at this point it’s personal. I want to make sure that the banner is flown high and seen and maybe it can make a difference in people’s lives, [whether they] stop smoking, or pull themselves out of environments or at least be more careful in environments where there are things that can harm their lungs and ruin their health.”
Despite the efforts of the DPH and the American Lung Association, radon awareness could be better. “I’m not confident that people make the connection between radon and lung cancer,” Canovi says. She adds she’s also not sure many “people are aware that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.”
To better quantify radon’s impact in Connecticut, the DPH is pushing an Act Concerning Reporting of Radon Reports in the state legislature. The bill, which has been proposed unsuccessfully several times in the past few years, is being championed because the state agency “has no current means or authority to collect residential radon testing and radon-reduction activities in Connecticut,” Sullivan says. “As the state’s health agency, we are expected to identify health problems and provide informed answers to citizens. The first step would be in objectively identifying the extent of risk associated with a known carcinogen — we collect data for lesser risks. This proposal is being submitted to determine the scope and incidence of the largest environmental health risk in Connecticut — radon.”
On April 22, Clarke will attempt to bring awareness to radon and other issues related to lung cancer, literally one step at a time. But successfully completing the physical challenge will be about more than a chance to raise awareness of a terrible disease: it will mark a personal victory. “I think the big thing this year is accomplishing it will psychologically and physically make me feel that I’m back. That I fought this and won or am winning the battle against this.”
Clarke says when he was diagnosed with cancer he knew he couldn’t get through it alone and proudly relied on the support of firefighters, coworkers and his family. “I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with an unpleasurable situation. It’s made the fight that much more bearable and that much more positive. You need people behind you to take this on, and you need to reach out when you’re running into problems and struggling. It’s amazing how good people are, it really is.”
The Hartford Fight for Air Climb
The climb is one of a series of signature fundraising events of the American Lung Association, held in prominent skyscrapers across the country. The Hartford Fight for Air Climb will take place on April 22 at 9 a.m., when participants will race up 34 flights of stairs. The event also includes a firefighter challenge, in which members of more than 30 fire departments complete the climb with roughly 50 pounds of gear. The Hartford Climb aims to raise $165,000 for the American Lung Association’s mission to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease through education, advocacy and research. Those not currently on a team are welcome to join Fire Task Force 51 or contribute to the team’s climb by visiting action.lung.org/goto/Doug51.
For more information about radon in Connecticut, go to ct.gov/dph/cwp, where there are fact sheets and lists of licensed radon-remediation contractors in the state.
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Radon is a radioactive gas that cannot be seen or smelled. It is found in soil and rock in all towns in Connecticut. Radon gas can enter homes through cracks in the foundation and other openings in the lower level of your home. Breathing high levels of radon over a long period of time can damage the lungs and become dangerous to adults and children.
How do you test for it?
Testing is the only way to know if your home has high levels of radon. Place a radon test in the lowest lived-in level of your home for two to seven days. Then mail it to the lab to process your results. You can buy a low-cost test from the American Lung Association by calling 1-800-LUNG-USA. Many stores also sell radon tests.
How do you reduce radon levels?
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends reducing radon levels in the home’s indoor air to below 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). Hire a qualified radon-mitigation contractor to install a radon-reduction system in your home. No level of radon is safe. Consider fixing your home if your radon level is between 2 pCi/L and
4 pCi/L. The average cost of a radon mitigation system is $1,200. Visit the DPH website for more information on radon and a list of radon companies: ct.gov/dph/radon.
What if I’m building a new home?
Ask about radon-resistant construction techniques. Builders can use simple technology and common building materials to help keep radon from entering the home. It is less expensive and easier to build these features into new homes than to add them later.