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Radon is a radioactive gas that originates in rocks below structures and collects in homes, causing lung cancer.

COURTESY IMAGE: - A map showing the risk of exposure to radon in ZIP codes around Oregon. The Oregon Health Authority recently collected the data using test results from radon test kit manufacturers.Banks and North Plains are among the areas with the highest risk of exposure to the radioactive gas radon in the state, according to recently released data from the Oregon Health Authority.

Radon is an invisible, tasteless and odorless gas that originates in rock formations and can collect in people's homes. It's among the leading causes of lung cancer.

As part of its Oregon Radon Awareness program, OHA officials are recommending that all people, especially those living in areas where data shows an elevated risk or places where there is little data, get their homes tested for radon.

Officials collected data from test kit manufacturers to better understand the risk around the state.

"Radon is really dependent on what's underneath your house," said Curtis Cude, an environmental public health program manager with OHA, "and what the house is like. It can really vary from house to house, and you never know what the levels are in your house until you test."

Cude said radon occurs in minerals found across the state that have trace amounts of uranium, which breaks down into radium and then further decays into radon gas. It can emanate up through small cracks in the foundations of structures and collect in houses where people breathe it in.

"Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after tobacco smoke," Cude said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates radon is responsible for more than 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year.

The state government is offering free radon test kits to people living in ZIP codes where there are fewer than 20 test results. People can view an interactive map that shows radon exposure risk in ZIP codes across the state.

The EPA recommends people take mitigation action if radon levels are 4 pCi/L (picocurries per liter) or higher. The EPA also recommends people consider radon mitigation if levels are above 2 pCi/L, because there is no known safe level of exposure to radon.

Banks had both the highest percentage of test results with radon levels above 4 pCi/L and the highest average radon value, the OHA data showed. Of the 85 tests in the area, more than 61% of them were above 4 pCi/L, with an average of 6.9 pCi/L.

North Plains is also considered at high risk. Nearly 50% of the 66 tests showed radon levels above 4 pCi/L.

Cude said many of the rock formations with high radon levels in the Columbia River Basin were deposited after large flood events originating in what is now Montana and Idaho toward the end of the last ice age.

The best time to test your house is during the winter months, when windows are closed and airflow is minimal, Cude said.

Test kits are typically between $15 and $20. Cude said mitigation costs are comparable to other home repairs — a couple thousand dollars.

Although that cost might seem high, Cude said it's nothing compared to the cost of treatment for lung cancer.

"Only one in six people (diagnosed with lung cancer) are alive five years after diagnosis," Cude said. He added that the risk of lung cancer is much higher for people who smoke when they're exposed to radon.

"Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any resources available to homeowners for like low-interest or no-interest loans that can help with the cost of radon mitigation," Cude said. "There are some potential policy solutions out there to the cost barrier."

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