A woman from Casselton, North Dakota,  Judith Antoine, began feeling the effects as early as almost thirty years ago. That was when she moved into the home in which she was living when she died. Unfortunately, her doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her lungs, and she lived in ill health for the rest of her life.

Eventually, Judith was diagnosed with scarring of the lungs, which is also known as pulmonary fibrosis. Her family could not recall any other pulmonary or heart problems, so the cause was a mystery for a time. The x-rays that helped with her diagnosis showed that only a small part of her lung was working. Without being able to properly draw breath, her condition got worse and she eventually died at the age of 72.

Her children, Michelle and Andrew, demanded to know how it was that she could have developed this disease. Smoking is considered one possible cause, but Judith was not a smoker. Andrew eventually tested her home and found that it was contaminated with radon. He found levels as high as 234 around the house. The EPA recommendation is that if there is a reading above 4, then homeowners should take action. Radon has no smell or color, so it is impossible to detect without testing. Judith paid for this lack of awareness with her life.

It may surprise many to know that radon is only behind smoking when it comes to causes of lung cancer. Approximately 21,000 people die from radon exposure every year in the United States. For many years, lung cancer has been thought to be the only health issue related to radon exposure, but recent studies making experts question that assertion.

One study focused on uranium miners who came down with pulmonary fibrosis. There was significant evidence that radon played a part in their illness, but as it stands more information and further study is needed to cement the claim. Judith’s family does not feel that they need any more study, though. They are certain that radon is what killed their mother. Judith’s doctor agrees with them as well. He listed pulmonary fibrosis and radon toxicity as the cause of death on her death certificate. It was the first death certificate in North Dakota to ever have that classification.

This classification on Judith’s death certificate prompted the Cass County Coroner’s office to contact the family to ask them about radon. They were not familiar with it and wanted it to know more. Michelle was grateful that they took the time to gather more information.

North Dakota is known as a “hot spot” for radon, so citizens would be wise to be diligent in testing their homes. Every county in the state is ranked as a zone 1 “red” county, according to the EPA’s ranking system. The state radon coordinator says that 63% of all homes in the state are over the action level of 4. That said, a reading as high as the one in Judith’s house are not common.

Residents in Casselton should be alarmed at this information, however being close to a house with high radon levels does not mean that there will be high levels nearby. It depends on the soil underneath the home, so levels can vary wildly even between homes next door. That said, it would be a good idea for any homeowner to test their home to make sure that radon levels are in the normal range.

A little knowledge can go a long way, and can even prevent unnecessary deaths. Judith’s family is convinced that with some extra awareness of radon exposure, their mother might still be alive today.