Native Americans and tribal populations suffer disproportionately from poor indoor air quality. So when I was asked to participate in environmental testing at the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation (CTGR) in May 2018, I knew it would be a great opportunity to raise awareness among tribal members about the adverse health effects of radon gas. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and exposure to the odorless gas inside homes is a serious issue for many tribal and rural communities.
The Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah and the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational Health, University of Utah, were the lead organizations for the testing program. Huntsman Cancer also participated, and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was asked to oversee the indoor-radon testing component.
Radon isn’t the only contaminant that poses a health risk to tribal members living at CTGR. Tribal communities and many other communities in rural Utah face environmental challenges posed by a desert landscape that contains naturally high metal concentrations, geologic formations that emit radon, and limited infrastructure.
Residents participating in the voluntary environmental testing program had their homes and yards tested for specific pollutants:
- Particulate matter levels, both indoor and outdoor, can be high because most families at the CTGR heat their homes with wood stoves.
- Soils can contain heavy metals like lead and arsenic.
- Lead, carbon monoxide, and radon can be present at high levels in the ambient air. Without testing, there’s no way to know for sure.
Radon Testing Process
We met with the Tribal Board several times and asked if there were residents who were willing to do the entire environmental test suite. Seventeen residents volunteered, but only 11 were available on the day we tested.
DEQ tested these 11 homes as well as the Tribal Headquarters for radon. We discovered that five of the 11 homes had elevated radon levels. We verified those results using DEQ’s continuous radon monitors, which measure radon in real-time. The homes we re-tested continued to show elevated levels.
I reached out to a certified radon mitigator and asked if his company, Radovent, would be willing to install two mitigation systems, and he said yes. I then met with the CTGR Building Code Commission/Board to explain what a mitigation system is, how it works, etc. At the end of the meeting, the Board gave us the go-ahead, and on August 9, 2018, Radovent installed mitigation systems pro-bono for two residents on the CTGR.
We hope to train two to three CTGR tribe members to install these mitigation systems. This training will empower tribe members to take charge of indoor radon testing and mitigation in their community.
The CTGR Building Code Commission/Board has asked us to test all 350 residences on the reservation. DEQ will be working with the tribe and EPA Regions 9 and 10 to ensure this happens. We hope to arrange for the installation of two more free mitigation systems along with additional training on the systems. The Director of the Building Code group is requesting funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help with the installation of mitigation systems.
Collaboration and Outreach
Residents were initially concerned when they discovered radon levels in some of the homes were five times higher than the EPA action level of 4 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L). I was glad I was there to talk to them and address their concerns. An instructor at a training told residents they needed to move out of their homes until the levels were brought down, which is not true. I was able to reassure tribal members by providing them with accurate information on actual, not perceived, risks.
Building relationships with tribal members is key to the continued success of the environmental testing program at CTGR. While it took some time to explain why we were there and why a mitigation company would install two systems for free, we were eventually able to gain the community’s trust and build partnerships to support continued testing. We hope that a CTGR representative will attend our EPA Region 8 Radon Conference in April 2019 and possibly make a presentation about the work we’re doing together to improve indoor air quality at the CTGR.
I have enjoyed working with members of the CTGR and am happy we were able to test their homes, particularly since close to half had elevated levels. These numbers are not unusual, as approximately one in two homes in the south part of the Salt Lake Valley also test high for radon. Rural and tribal communities face special challenges, though, with testing and mitigation, and we believe this program is an important first step in reaching out to people living in remote areas of Utah.
I look forward to our continued relationship with the CTGR tribal community as we work together to ensure every home there is a healthy home.
Have you tested YOUR home yet? We have $9 test kits available for Utah residents. Testing is easy, and you’ll get your results back quickly. Always use a certified mitigator if you have elevated levels of radon in your home. If you have further questions, please call me at (801) 536-0091.
I have worked in the radon field for 15 years, most recently as the Radon Coordinator for the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. I enjoy being outdoors with my family and golden retriever.