I-TEAM: 'Mama, you ain't safe': Aiken County has one of the highest radon levels in SC. Is it because of SRS?

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Monday, Jan. 6, 2020
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

(Source: WRDW)

AIKEN, SC (WRDW/WAGT) -- You can't see it, touch it, or taste it. It's also the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. January is National Radon Month.

It's a naturally occurring radioactive gas usually found in homes around the mountains -- not coastal areas, but our I-Team found potentially dangerous levels here.

The Environmental Protection Agency ranks radon levels over a four as dangerous. We found levels as high as 74 in Aiken County. It just so happens to be that lung cancer is the deadliest cancer in Aiken County, too.

Acres of cotton line the roads to the Savannah River Site. Once upon a time, farming was the only way of life there.

Dorothy Danridge was 16 when the government forced her and the 6,000 other residents of Ellenton to move. She and 700 others relocated about 12 miles north to New Ellenton.

Danridge and her family were happy about the plant.

"Just as happy as a jaybird,” Danridge said. “If I could have sung the jaybird song I would have sung it."

Most of her family got jobs at the plant, but the paycheck may have come at a price.

You see, seven of Danridge’s family members – a husband, two sons, two brothers, and her father -- have died from cancer. Five of them worked at the plant.

Danridge doesn’t know if the cancer even came from working at the plant.

“I don’t know because so many people now got it,” Danridge said.

Her sister and son did not work at SRS, but did grow up 14 miles from it. The Radiation and Public Health Project presented a report to the Community Involvement Fund in 2012.

The report expresses concern over too few health studies done on health risks, saying virtually none of the studies address trends overtime of local rates of disease and death.

"He said, ‘Mama, you ain't safe, but it too late now,’” Danridge said.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control tracks cancer deaths. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Aiken County.

So, why is radon so bad for humans?

“Radon, so farm, we know the association is with cancer,” Dr. Shaheen Islam with Augusta University said. “Some studies have shown where there is high radon there is high risk of lung cancer."

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

We asked for radon records from DHEC. Results show Aiken County has the highest radon levels in the state next to Greenville County and higher than any county in Georgia.

"It's mostly in the mountain areas where there is a lot of rocks. Less in the coastal areas,” Islam said.

We found the highest levels in the county in zip code 29803. The highest? A 74. The EPA considers results over a four unsafe.

Danridge's lives in zip code 29809 -- a small area inside of 29803. We tested her home and results came back above a four.

Danridge had never even heard of radon before.

Radon occurs naturally in the environment when uranium breaks down in the soil. Uranium also happens to be the metal used to once make nuclear weapons at SRS.

Despite the high numbers of radon in her area, Danridge says she’s not leaving her home. She already did that once 60 years ago.

DHEC offers free radon test kits for South Carolina residents. If you live Georgia, you can pick up a kit at Home Depot or Lowe’s.

What do you do if you do find high levels of radon inside your home? There are several methods contractors use to rid radon from homes. The type of house you have depends on the method.

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