It's a good news, bad news, good news situation.
First, the first good news. More and more Nebraska homes are being tested for radon.
Which brings us to the bad news -- more and more radon is being found, 59 percent of the 48,000-plus homes tested since 1990 have radon levels of 4 picocuries per liter of air, the acceptable health level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But that brings us to the second good news -- there are things you can do about it once you know it's there.
And, if you live in Southwest Nebraska like we do, there's a good chance it is.
Red Willow County -- and much of Nebraska -- has average radon levels above the 4 pCi/L level deemed safe. In a few hundred homes that have been tested in our county, radon has ranged from 2 to 19 pCi/L.
By way of review, radon is a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring gas that originates in the soil and can build to dangerous levels in homes. Since it's radioactive, it is very damaging to lung tissue when people breathe it in. The EPA estimates that approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year are due to radon exposure.
A recent analysis of radon data shows:
* As more homes in Nebraska are tested for radon, the state average is creeping higher, up to 6.3 picocuries per liter from 5.9 picocuries per liter in 2010.
* The average radon level in some counties has increased to above 4.0 picocuries per liter, with Sheridan, Garden, and Holt counties joining the 69 counties that tested that high previously.
* Dawson and Gage counties have joined Cedar County in the category of having an extremely high level. These counties have results in the 205 -- 290 picocuries per liter category.
"The data supports what we've known for some time," said Sara Morgan, Indoor Air Quality Program Manager. "Nebraska homes are very likely to have high levels of radon."
"People should reduce their risk as much as possible," said Dr. Joann Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer. "Radon testing is the first step to knowing how much risk you and your family are exposed to in your home. If you have a high level, you can take measures to reduce it."
Sealing obvious cracks and openings in the foundation of the home can slow radon entry, as can pressurizing the basement by opening air registers. However, since these steps will only lower the radon level slightly, contacting a licensed contractor will be the next step for most homes with higher levels. The contractor can install a permanent mitigation system which will actively pull the radon from under the foundation slab and exhaust it above the roof.
On the Nebraska Radon Program website, new maps show radon averages across the state, as well as how many homes have been tested, and the percentage of homes that test high.
"The maps are not a predictor of what radon level an individual home will have," Morgan said. "Even counties with low averages have some homes with high radon levels. Likewise, some high average counties have homes with low radon levels. Your neighbor's radon level is not an indication of what your radon level will be, so each homeowner needs to test."