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Radon: The silent killer

Local woman works to make public aware of deadly substance
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Marlene MacEwan wants people in Lake Oswego to know something that she didn't know.

That radon can cause lung cancer -that radon can kill.

It killed her husband Bob in 2004, and that is why MacEwan is serving as a spokesperson for Radon Awareness Month in January in the Lake Oswego area.

'People in Lake Oswego need to be aware of this,' MacEwan said. 'If it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody.'

The statistics provided by the American Lung Association of Oregon are grim: Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and causes more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths every year in the U.S.

But the question for the vast majority of American people is like that of Bob and Marlene MacEwan a few years ago, 'What is radon?'

'Radon emits from granite containing soil and rocks,' said Don Francis, owner of EcoTech, a Portland firm that specializes in testing for radon levels in homes. 'There's uranium in it. Any house can have it, and it can move up through a house.'

The MacEwans were motivated to find the answer when Bob came down with lung cancer in 2003.

'Bob thought he had burst a blood vessel in his neck,' MacEwan said. 'But an X-ray showed a major tumor in his lung. He was 49.'

This was a shock because Bob was a non-smoker, so he did an Internet search to find out what was wrong. A possible answer emerged: Radon. But 'we had no clue what radon was.' So they had to find out for sure.

'We called the Environmen-tal Protection Agency,' Mac-Ewan said. 'An official told me we wouldn't even have to test because our area didn't have any radon. We decided to test anyway.'

The results were incredible: The MacEwans' home in Lake Grove showed a 55.2 level in pico curies per liter of air (the measurement for radon). A second test was even more distressing: a pico curies level of 56.2. A level of 4.0 is considered unsafe in a home.

But the worst news was that the discovery was too late to help Bob MacEwan. His lung cancer had progressed too far.

'By the time of the diagnosis Bob was already in the late stages,' MacEwan said. He died in November in 2004, leaving behind Marlene and their four children.

MacEwan took action, first of all to preserve her own safety and that of her children and grandchildren. She had Francis and EcoTech build a mitigation system into her home that reduced the radon level to a safe level of 2.1 by installing pipes that forced radon gas out into the air, where it dissipates and becomes harmless.

Then she stepped out to help others, by becoming a spokesperson for Radon Awareness Month just a year after the death of her husband.

The first people MacEwan told about radon and the need to test for it were her neighbors, and the reaction greatly surprised her.

'Some just didn't want to know about it,' she said. 'The total cost for a test is $25 to $35. That's a small price for peace of mind.'

Francis totally agrees. Only about six years ago his knowledge about radon was absolutely zero, but then he met Chuck Eastwood (cousin of Clint Eastwood) who was working for BPA. He told him about the dangers of radon.

'I bought a test kit but never used it,' Francis said. 'But the knowledge stayed with me. I found out it was a common problem that nobody knew about.'

With a background as an environmentalist, Francis started Eco-Tech, and for a price ranging from $1,500 to $2,100 he can install a mitigation system in a home that can reduce radon to a safe level.

'Some of the highest radon levels are in Lake Oswego,' Francis said. 'People are definitely becoming aware of it.'

Francis is doing his part during Radon Awareness Month. He is placing inserts in area newspapers and is doing outreach work with real estate agents. In just one speaking engagement last week Francis talked to 30 real estate agents.

In her low-key yet fervent manner, Marlene MacEwan is working to spread the word about radon in Lake Oswego, making herself available for media news spots whenever possible.

'Chest X-rays should be part of any physical. Radon testing should be part of any home inspection,' she said. 'It's more deadly than mold or other things.'

MacEwan would like to see radon tests be an automatic part of any home inspection.

'Many real estate agents treat it as if it doesn't even exist,' she said. 'If I was a real estate agent, I would say, 'Let's do the radon test. Let's get it done.'

'I would like public awareness increased about radon and not swept under a rug.'