'You can't see it, smell it, taste it,' but it can cause cancer: How to protect your family from radon

WAUKESHA COUNTY -- The leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers isn't second-hand smoke -- it is radon. The invisible gas is common in homes throughout our area, but many people are completely unaware.

"You can't see it. You can't smell it. You can't taste it," explained Steve Todd, hazardous waste coordinator for Waukesha County.

Steve Todd

Lurking in the soil beneath many Wisconsin homes is radon -- a radioactive, naturally occurring gas.

"North and Western Waukesha County has some of the very highest levels," revealed Todd.

The numbers are especially high in southeast Wisconsin where nearly half of all homes have elevated levels of radon in their main living rooms.

An interactive map on the Department of Health and Human Services website shows the spots where more than half of the homes have levels about the recommended limit.

Interactive map shows indoor radon test results across Wisconsin.

"It varies from home to home and community to community," Todd said.

As the hazardous waste coordinator in Waukesha County, Todd has taken phone calls from non-smokers diagnosed with lung cancer who want to test their homes for radon.

"Unfortunately, in many cases, they find out they have very high levels in their home," Todd said.

Skylar Behm explains to Contact 6's Jenna Sachs how radon gets into homes.

So, how is radon getting from the soil into homes?

"It's coming through cracks in the floor," explained Skylar Behn, lead sanitarian for Waukesha County Environmental Health. "The winter months are when radon is at its highest, because you have your furnace on, you have your windows closed, your house is closed up."

All that creates pressure, which sucks radon up from the ground into a home.

Testing for radon has become common when buying a house, but you can get a test kit from your local health department.

"The sooner you get tested, the better, because the longer you're living with high levels, the more likely you are to get lung cancer," Behm said.

To test for radon with the kit, place it in the lowest lived-in area of your home. The charcoal in the test will absorb radon and be sent to a lab for testing. Results can vary dramatically from one house on your block and the next.

"You can't predict your results based on what your neighbors' is," said Behm.

Radon test kit

If you have radon, it's recommended that you install a mitigation system, which ranges in cost from $800 to $2,000.

"We would recommend a radon mitigation contractor. Someone who has been certified," Behm said.

Portion of radon mitigation system

The system will include a fan that draws radon-infected air out from underneath the house and directs it up towards the roof where it's released and dissipates into the air.

January is National Radon Action Month. An estimated 20,000 people die every year from lung cancer caused by radon.