June 21, 2024

Library Program Lends Radon Detectors to Rural Residents

Researchers from the University of Kentucky designed a radon-testing intervention with public library staff, citizen scientists, and community members. A February 2024 paper describes how the researchers, citizen scientists, and library staff created a library lending program for radon test kits and evaluated its usability, feasibility, and acceptability. Libraries can be innovative settings for public health interventions because they are highly accessible, with trusted community voices who already serve the public and are experts at lending materials and distributing information.

Lending out radon test kits from libraries made tests accessible to community members who would not have otherwise tested their homes, either due to lack of awareness of radon risk or inability to afford a detector or detection service. Community members also received support in completing radon tests and understanding the results from information provided in the kits, trained library staff, and community citizen scientists.

patron and employee at the Logan County Public Library

Logan County Public Library patron checking out a radon detector kit. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Hahn)

“This is the first study to test the usability, feasibility, and acceptability of a radon detector library lending program,” reflected Ellen Hahn, Ph.D., RN, lead researcher on the study. “It shows an effective way to get radon tests to people living in areas at high risk for radon exposure who may not otherwise test their homes due to lack of awareness or financial barriers.”

Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. However, many people are unaware they may be exposed in their homes. Radon, a radioactive gas produced by natural processes in some types of bedrock and soil, can enter homes and workplaces and become trapped inside. Radon is harmful to people when inhaled because its radioactive particles damage cells that line the lung. Because remediation can reduce radon concentrations in homes to the levels recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), testing is an important public health intervention, particularly in areas where the bedrock and soil contain substances that can create radon and inside homes where tobacco smoke is also present.

Designing a Library Radon Detector Program

Researchers from the NIEHS-funded Radon on the RADAR (Residents Acting to Detect and Alleviate Radon) study identified four rural Kentucky counties with low rates of home radon testing. Counties were chosen based on radon potential and “matched” on county-level median income and population size. Researchers engaged with staff at each library in all four counties to develop the library lending program. Library staff and citizen scientists made several suggestions in designing the lending program, including having a user agreement for community members to sign when checking out a detector kit, what radon information to add to kits, what training library staff needed so they could effectively provide information to community members, and suggestions for marketing the program to the community.

The research team recruited 15 community members from each county to volunteer as citizen scientists. The volunteers learned how to test their own homes for radon and were invited to spread information about the lending program and recruit community members to participate.

men standing at a table with Radon Action Month materials and a radon test kit

(Left) Community partners engaging library patrons about radon and the lending program during National Radon Action Month and (right) Radon detector kit including Airthings Corentium Home radon detector, 3 AAA batteries, instruction guide, and sturdy case. (Photos courtesy of Ellen Hahn)

In addition to the radon testing device, kits contained instruction cards describing how to use the detector, frequently asked questions, and a Radon Action Plan that explained how to interpret radon test numbers and what to do if the numbers were high, such as hiring a certified radon mitigation professional. Kits were lent for up to three weeks, allowing time for the patron to set up the radon detector in their home, allow the device to measure radon for two weeks, and then return the kit to the library.

Community Members Find Library Lending Program Effective

Researchers invited anyone who borrowed a kit to join the research study to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Community members were able to check out kits from libraries regardless of whether they participated in the study. Of 319 community members who checked out kits, 86 participated in the study, which included an online form to record radon test results, a demographic and housing survey, and a post-testing survey that examined what participants thought about the kits. For community members without internet access, kits contained a radon data collection card on which they could keep track of their data and, after enrolling, they were mailed a paper copy of the surveys to complete and return.

Participants expressed that the testing devices worked as expected and that materials provided in the kits were easy to understand and helpful for completing radon testing. Most participants indicated they were likely to recommend the library lending program to others.

“It was striking to see that just under half of the study participants learned they were living with high radon levels, and most of these individuals had been in their homes for a long time, some over 20 years, without having previously tested for radon,” stated Hahn. “This reinforces the importance of getting radon detectors out to the public and raising awareness of the risks of radon exposure.”

Most participants whose test levels indicated a need for remediation stated they were likely to hire a mitigation professional but that financial assistance would be helpful.

Overall, the study showed library lending programs are feasible ways to get radon detectors to those who may otherwise not test for radon, either due to a lack of awareness about the risk of radon, low financial means to obtain a radon test device, or both. This is particularly helpful for rural communities where there are low rates of radon testing and high risk for exposure. The program demonstrated that libraries have an interest in improving the public’s health and may therefore be critical partners in addressing environmental justice concerns by reaching and educating populations who are typically marginalized.

The research team noted that further research is needed to understand low radon testing rates in rural communities and ways to increase testing, either through policy change to increase testing accessibility, or outreach to raise awareness of radon risks.

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