The silent killer: Giles County family shares warning about the dangers of radon, before it’s too late

Two sisters who lost their mother to radon-induced lung cancer are warning other families about the dangers

GILES COUNTY, Va. – Looking back through old family photos, sisters Angela Elliott and Tina Steele are flooded with memories.

It’s been almost nine years to the day since they lost their mother, Ginger Collins. She died on February 4, 2011 at just 58 years old.

“You want to be sad, but I’m very thankful that I had a good mother who raised me well,” said Steele.

Collins was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2010.

“She didn’t live very long,” Elliott said. “It was a hard, hard few months.”

What stumped the sisters, was that their mother didn’t smoke. Their grandmother also died from lung cancer at a young age.

“We kind of thought maybe it was a hereditary thing,” Elliott said.

They couldn’t figure it out, until Steele went to her doctor.

“He was like, ‘Tina, it was radon,' And I’m like, ‘What is radon?’" Steele said. "Because I didn’t know what it was because, you know, nobody tells you about it, really. And I went home and looked it up and I’m like, ‘Oh my. That’s exactly what it was.'”

Radon is a naturally-occurring, radioactive gas that comes from rocks and dirt in the ground and escapes into the air everywhere. When high levels of radon get trapped in your home, it can be dangerous.

“Radon is a colorless, odorless gas and so you cannot detect it with your senses,” said Kevin Stewart, the director of environmental health advocacy and public policy with the American Lung Association. “It doesn’t cause any immediate symptoms either so it’s very, very easy for people not to even be aware that they’re being exposed to radon.”

Stewart said that radon can attach to particles in the air, which when breathed in, can stick to someone’s lungs and over time can lead to cancer.

“We know that it can be in as short as five or ten years of exposure can be enough to put people at higher risk,” Stewart said. “When people do find that they’re experiencing symptoms from lung cancer, it’s often too late to properly treat.”

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. behind smoking-- and the leading cause in non-smokers.

The Environmental Protection Agency cites about 21,000 deaths due to radon-induced lung cancer each year, including nearly 700 cases in Virginia.

The EPA recommends keeping radon levels in your home under 2 picocuries per liter (pCi/l). But remember: no level of radon is safe. Anything 4 pCi/l or higher puts you at a greater risk

“Mom’s were 18,” Steele said.

Certain locations across the country are designated by the EPA as low, moderate or high risk radon zones. Nearly half of homes in Central and Southwest Virginia have high levels of radon. Though homes in the same neighborhood can have different levels.

Giles County, where Collins and her family lived, is designated as a high risk zone. Generations of the Collins family were born and raised in the same Pearisburg neighborhood.

“I was in that house for 20 years," Steele said. “Of course, I worry about my own health. So I had my house tested and [Angela] had [her house] tested and everybody’s was high. Everybody’s radon was high in the county.”

“My mom was a homemaker. She stayed home all the time. And my dad worked out of town a lot so I really feel like that’s how maybe he’s avoided it, because he wasn’t in the house constantly like she was,” Elliott said. “It’s just really scary.”

Thanks to a local radon mitigation specialist, their homes’ radon levels are under control. These sisters hope by sharing their mother’s story, they could save a life.

“That through all this, we were able to help people and let them know,” Steele said.

“She would be happy,” Elliott said.

If you want to learn more about radon, how to test for it, and how to find out if you live in a high risk zone, click here.

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