MOORHEAD-When it was suggested that first-time homebuyers Heather Sanchez and husband Alex have their home here tested for radon, she had no idea what it was.

After online research about the radioactive gas that can't be seen or smelled, the couple decided to go ahead to safeguard the family, including five children.

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The test came back at 10.8 pCi/L or 10.8 picocuries per liter, more than double what the Environmental Protection Agency considers "actionable."

"Ours was really high," Sanchez said, referring to the level in their home at 614 4th St. S.

However, they and other low-income families recently had radon mitigation systems installed at no cost as part of a Minnesota Cancer Alliance Workgroup pilot project.

The group includes representatives from the Breath of Hope Foundation, Minnesota Department of Health and Midwest Radon Specialists.

The program received 22 applications and chose eight families in northwestern Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro based on income, radon levels, number of people in the home and whether a cancer survivor lived there.

Mike Thompson and John Daly of Midwest Radon donated labor and materials for the systems, which vent radon from the soil through pipes, to the outdoors.

"The radon fan there, it pulls from underneath the basement slab at the soil gases. It runs 24 hours a day," Thompson said.

Dan Tranter, manager of the Health Department's Indoor Air Unit, said the cost of radon mitigation ranges from $1,500 to $2,000, out of reach for many lower-income families.

"We want to take that barrier away to some degree," Tranter said.

High levels in MN, ND

Thompson draws parallels between lead-based paint, banned in the 1970's, and radon, in terms of both taking time for people to realize and react to the hazards.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the U.S., accounting for more than 20,000 deaths annually, according to federal statistics.

Homes in Minnesota and North Dakota have elevated radon levels for two reasons: higher amounts of naturally-occurring radon in the soil and being closed up due to cold winters.

The Minnesota Health Department posts county-by-county average radon levels on its website.

In Clay County, from 2010 to 2016, only seven in 10,000 homes were tested annually.

About 62 percent had radon levels of 4.0 pCi/L per liter, the level at which the EPA recommends installing a venting system.

Tranter said more people are testing and mitigating, because the state now requires passive radon systems in new home builds and radon disclosures during real estate transactions.

Those changes, though, represent just drops in the bucket.

"There's still many, many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of homes that have high radon that need to be fixed," he said.

Giving back

The Sanchez family's basement houses the washer and dryer, and laundry has stacked up since they moved in in early June.

"The children are like, 'Oh my gosh, there's radon down there, I can't go down there,'" Sanchez said.

Casual exposure to radon isn't the problem, however; it's long-term exposure to high levels that can cause lung cancer.

Also, age of the home and location in the neighborhood aren't necessarily indicators.

For example, a neighbor's radon level might be much higher or lower than yours.

Sanchez is thankful she doesn't have to be concerned about the health hazard anymore.

"It was pure relief to know that my kids could be safe in our home," she said.

Thompson hopes other radon mitigation companies will follow suit in helping lower income families, allowing the pilot program to grow.

"For us to be able to give back to other people, it feels really good," he said.