Of all the tedious issues surrounding the purchase of a home, the one Tricia Terrell and her husband Robin were unprepared for involved a gas called radon.
The couple, originally from Great Britain, had never pictured an odorless substance as threatening. But in the weeks leading to their move to Lake Lanier, they learned otherwise.
"Before we bought the house, our Realtor said we should check for radon," Tricia Terrell said. "We did and the (level) was high."
They researched the term on the Internet and quickly learned radon can be found just about anywhere. They also discovered elevated levels measured in a house can be dealt with head on and made practically irrelevant.
They bought the house they wanted and installed devices capable of removing the gas.
"It's like osteoporosis. It's a silent killer. You don't know you've got it until it's too late," Tricia Terrell said. "So much is prevention. I think people just don't know about it."
In 1988, the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans in an official warning to test their homes and reduce radon. It followed a Congressional act strengthening the Environmental Protection Agency's radon program.
The subject has gained even more traction in recent years as lung cancer activists have intensified their efforts to bring research money to the nation's foremost cancer killer.
The connection is this: Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer deaths in the United States, according to the EPA. For nonsmokers, radon is the leading cause, the agency claims.
Ginger Bennett, a state radon educator who's based in the Hall/Dawson County Cooperative Extension office, uses another EPA statistic relative to Georgia specifically. Radon gas exposure causes more than 800 lung cancer deaths in this state each year, Bennett said.
"The thing that I want everyone to consider is they need to test their homes, because their families could be at risk," Bennett said.
She works with groups and individuals to teach them about radon, which is a natural development in geology here, Bennett said. Rock formations in the Northeast Georgia region and the state in general favor intermediate to high levels of radon, according to the EPA.
"Anywhere that you have a lot of rock and granite and quartz, you have a higher possibility of elevated uranium," Bennett said. When uranium decays, radon gasses are produced and sometimes trapped in structures, she added.
"Radon can be and is found in every indoor situation, no matter what, homes, schools, offices, churches and doctors offices," Bennett said.
While disclosure reports, if they exist, are required during real estate transactions, landlords are not subject to disclosure laws. As a result, the renter population is at risk, especially, Bennett said. Other states require radon testing and disclosure to protect this residential population.
"The sad part about it is landlords are not required to test. If they do, they don't have to reveal the results to their tenants. Nor do they have to do anything about it," she said. "Renters have no recourse other than moving out."
A simple testing kit is available for $5 at Bennett's office, with private companies charging $125-$150 for more extensive studies. Bennett also advises individuals on what to do if elevated levels exist.
She is upfront about telling them a home with high radon does not mean an automatic lung cancer diagnosis.
"It is a fixable problem," Bennett said. "What it comes down to is, what is your acceptable risk? What are you willing to live with?"
The Terrells chose to address the radon measured in their home. The family retrofitted the house with a fan-based system that pulls trapped air and radon from the home and allows it to escape naturally.
Such fixes can be expensive, Bennett said, with costs ranging between $1,000 and 2,500.
However, people who are building new homes can incorporate a method for releasing radon into their new structures for less than $500.
That's what Lola Smith and her family chose to do as they designed their energy-efficient home in Hall County about six years ago.
The Smiths asked the builder to install a passage system through the center of the house. Lola Smith then forgot about it until she listened to Bennett conduct a presentation a couple years later.
Smith had her home tested, and it registered slightly higher than the acceptable level of 4. The system was activated with the addition of an exhaust fan. Today, when Smith tests radon levels, it's hardly measurable at all.
"I don't know ... are there really people affected by radon? That I couldn't tell you," Smith said. "It's just like wearing your seat belt in the car. If my kids are going to live in that house for the next so many years, and we're going to live in that house, then I figure why not spend a few hundred dollars to make it better. Whether or not that's going help, who knows?"