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Radon poisoning strikes Osage

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Diane Emerson’s one-in-a-million heart just saved her life. She hopes it can save the lives of others.

Diane Emerson

Diane Emerson

Radon has been called the silent killer. According to the EPA, it is a radioactive gas prevalent in limestone bedrock, released as the result of the natural decay of uranium and radium. It cannot be detected by the senses.

For some time, Emerson had been sick. In February of 2022, she started experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain, and her voice was hoarse.

While her husband had left Osage to set up a missionary trip to Africa, her symptoms were getting worse. Though cell reception there was poor, she was able to get a message through to Africa about her condition.

Emerson did not believe it was a big deal. She told her husband it was only because she missed him.

No one knew what was wrong. As soon as her husband got home, he sent her to a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and a corticosteroid. It did not clear up the problem.

Doctors suspected it might be Emerson’s heart. In 2001 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Emerson had been diagnosed with a one-in-a-million condition known as a dual orifice mitral valve. Therefore she returned to Mayo in 2022. However, a cardiologist there determined her heart was not the problem.

One evening, Emerson was praying for an answer. That night, she was awakened, and the word “radon” flashed in her head.

“I didn’t know what radon was,” Emerson said.

The next morning, she googled “radon,” and found her symptoms matched exactly. So she bought a test kit from Hardware Hank and placed it at the bottom of the open spiral staircase, which led from the bedroom to the basement.

After the prescribed duration of several days, she mailed in the test vials. According to the EPA, if the result is anything higher than four pCi/L ((picocuries per liter), a radon reduction system should be installed.

Emerson’s radon level was 20 pCi/L. With her husband, Emerson owns the Emerson’s on Main clothing store in Osage. A realtor from Minneapolis stopped in one day and told her he had never heard of a result that high – five times the normal level.

Immediately, Emerson ordered a radon reduction system, which Adams Plumbing and Heating of Osage installed. As well, Emerson could not find a radon detector in the area, including Mason City, and ordered one online.

Even when Emerson opened the windows to air out the house, the radon level was 3.9 pCi/L. After the mitigation system was installed, it is now 0.9 pCi/L. Most of Emerson’s symptoms have been alleviated, though she is still short of breath. Damage to the lungs as the result of radon poisoning can be permanent.

After long enough exposure, lung cancer is almost a guarantee. The EPA estimates there are 21,000 radon-related lung cancer deaths each year, the second leading cause of lung cancer behind smoking.

The Emersons bought their home in Osage from a family friend in 2018. She died of lung cancer. According to Ken Emerson, her father also died in the house.

Several factors could have exacerbated the problem.

The basement has limestone walls. As well, in the basement, the former owner stored museum-quality artifacts from her father’s oil business. In accordance, the woman had installed ventilation for the sake of preservation, but it only circulated air within the home.

As well, because Emerson kept the house shuttered throughout the year to maintain a constant temperature for his family, the radon was not vented, but contained. For four years, they did not open a window. Via the spiral staircase, the trapped radon had an open portal to the Emersons’ bedroom.

“I thought it was exchanging the air,” Emerson said of the system designed to preserve the basement museum. “But all it was doing was dehumidifying.”

Emerson’s husband did not experience any symptoms, but he wears a sleep apnea machine at night. Also, some people are more susceptible to radon poisoning. In contrast to his wife, since he was relatively healthy, it became another reason they did not suspect the problem was environmental.

In addition, because of the growing number of symptoms experienced by those with COVID-19, other potential suspects had thrown Emerson off the trail.

Because of Emerson’s heart, and a message she received as she woke from a dream, she discovered a silent killer lurking in her house.

“The Lord put the word ‘radon’ in my head,” Emerson said. “Otherwise, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

After she found out what had made her sick, paying it forward, Emerson rushed to the doctor, and also contacted the Mayo Clinic. She did not need their help. She simply wanted to share her experience so they could better help others.

“We need to make sure people are aware of this problem,” her husband said. “It can happen in anybody’s house.”

“Please test for radon,” Emerson said. “For peace of mind – for yourself, for your pets, for your children.”

Jason W. Selby is the community editor for the Mitchell Country Press News. He can be reached at 515-971-6217, or by email at jason.selby@globegazette.com.

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