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Roberta Baskin's radon gas attack.

Benjamin Franklin Award Winner


As Roberta Baskin tells it, "It's not easy to focus attention on something you can't see or smell, taste or feel." Making sense of radon gas, the derivative of decaying uranium responsible for 5,000 to 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year in the United States, has been a special challenge to this consumer-affairs editor for Washington, D.C.'s Channel 7 television.

When Baskin first went on the air to urge home testing for radon in station WJLA's viewing area, her message was met with a lack of enthusiasm that ranged from apathy to downright resistance. But that didn't stop the veteran investigative reporter, who has won local and national awards for her exposes on unsafe trucks, inaccurate drug testing, alcoholic pilots, and colorectal cancer.

Baskin made radon real for viewers by explaining the dangers of the gas and helping her station launch a radon-watch campaign. To help viewers test for radon she found a way to make home testing kits available for a paltry $4.75, and got Safeway stores to stock the kits. As the Washington Post reported, "The radon watch became a radon race"; people actually lined up at stores as kits became available. "You'd have thought they were selling Redskins tickets," one reporter quipped.

The result: more than 100,000 kits sold, making the D.C.-area effort the largest radon test ever conducted in the United States.

Test-kit findings were startling. Some 29.5 percent of the structures tested registered radiation levels over 4 picocuries per liter of air. In laymen's language, this means that spending a single day in those structures is like smoking half a pack of cigarettes. Another 8.8 percent of buildings hit the 10-plus picocurie mark--equal to smoking a full pack a day. Even worse, if miners were to work in the 4.3 percent of environments that registered 16 or above, they would be required to wear fullface breathing masks. One house in the test may even have qualified for the Guinness Book of World Records by registering an unbelievable 500--well off the Environmental Protection Agency chart.

Other alarming statistics include a middle school with readings of 48 and 43 respectively in a teachers' lounge and a classroom.

What galvanized Roberta Baskin into taking up arms against radon was the report of a Pennsylvania man who set off a radiation detector on his way into a nuclear power plant. His house, as it turned out, was the hottest radon spot ever tested until then. The house next door checked out at a very low level. Testing, therefore, must become an individual, rather than a neighborhood, project.

One piece of positive news: through a special station effort, officials were persuaded to place radon test kits in the White House. They turned up safe readings.

Before you go looking for a $4.75 test kit, be advised that kits at this price have gone the way of the 5 [cents] pack of chewing gum. Prices now vary from $12 to $50--worth it, since you can't place a price on your peace of mind. Even if your residence tests high, you need not resign yourself to radon, Baskin says: "Look for a private contractor who will guarantee his work to put your house below four picocuries per liter." The fix-up bills may run as high as $1,500, but are often far less.

"The fact that dozens of television, radio, and newspaper reporters contacted us from all around the country is a hopeful sign that the story will continue to unfold everywhere," Baskin says of her anti-radon campaign. That's important, since there is a temptation to ignore a problem like radon because it's unseen.

"The whole idea of the campaign," Baskin says, "has been to attack apathy." The fact that people are using the tests and are doing something about high readings can be verified by the contractors--who say business is booming.

For alerting her viewers--and now Post readers--to the continuing radon problem, and showing the way to the solution, The Saturday Evening Post Society salutes WJLA consumer editor Roberta Baskin. We are proud to add her name to the honor roll of Benjamin Franklin Award recipients.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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