Gillette woman’s quest to educate residents on the presence and dangers of radon

Jake Goodrick with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE —Gail Heath had a chronic cough that just wouldn’t go away.


It started in the winter of 2020. For anyone sick at that time, there were a number of reasons to be concerned or, at the very least, hyper-aware of even the slightest coughs and chest pains.

The Gillette woman, now 75 years old, has always lived a healthy life. She was never a smoker and always mindful of her diet and supplements, yet the coughing hung around until the spring before finally going away.


When the cough returned the next winter, it became clear that it was something more than a cough.


Eventually, a CT scan confirmed a large tumor in her lungs. After a litany of biopsies, tests and treatments ranging from facilities in Gillette to hospitals in Colorado, it’s still unclear if the tumor is cancerous, Heath said.


What’s just as puzzling for her is the question of how a lifelong non-smoker developed a lung tumor?


The answer to that question remains unknown. But Heath has a hunch. 


Once she learned about radon — a radioactive gas and carcinogen — and that she may have been living in her Gillette home for years with nearly double the “get-it-fixed” threshold of that radioactive gas.


“Now I’m on this big push to educate people about radon,” Heath said. “Whether or not it caused my problem, we don’t know.”


Heath is on a mission to let people know about the presence and potential dangers of radon exposure, particularly in the home. For many, that work starts with explaining just what exactly radon is.

Radon is a radioactive gas that is naturally occurring and caused by the breakdown of uranium in all soils, meaning it’s just about everywhere.


It’s also the second leading cause of lung cancer and No. 1 cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


“It is colorless, odorless, tasteless — so there’s really no indicators that it is coming into your home based on that,” said Randi Herrington, outreach and media coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Health cancer program.


Radon is found in trace amounts in the atmosphere and outdoors, where it’s generally not considered a health risk. But its presence indoors is a different story. The naturally occurring gas can slowly enter homes and other buildings where it becomes trapped and concentrated over time.


“Typically, when you’re outdoors and the radon gas is coming up through the ground, it just dissipates with the natural air around it but when it is entering through the home, it gets sealed in the structure, (and) doesn’t really have anywhere to go,” Herrington said.


The Environmental Protection Agency recommends intervention when the radon levels rise above 4 picocuries per liter of air, or pCi/L.


Fifteen of the 23 Wyoming counties are above that threshold, with Lincoln County holding the highest average radon level at 9.98 pCi/L, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

In Campbell County, the average household radon level is 4.43 pCi/L, above what’s considered a safe level.


“I think it would best be interpreted as on average, anybody within Campbell County, if they test their home, could expect to see that their radon levels come back elevated, possibly at that 4.0 or higher,” Herrington said.


Those numbers come from an average of almost 32,000 tests completed in Wyoming over the past few decades.



When health problems arise, they’re often thought to come from long-term exposure at elevated levels. But that can vary, in terms of how long one’s exposed and at how high of levels.

The early symptoms of a problem may come in the form of a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pains, hoarseness or wheezing. Frequent bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia can also be red flags of potential lung cancer.


“A lot of this is due to a long-term exposure,” Herrington said. “It could mean months, it could mean years, it could mean decades.”


Radon levels may rise in the winter time, as doors and windows stay shut and furnaces kick up air from the basement, where radon is often more highly concentrated and more likely to enter from the surrounding ground, and then circulates through the rest of the home.


Although radon levels can build without notice and carry serious health consequences, there are ways to detect it and lower its presence indoors.


When Heath was preparing for her trip to Colorado for a biopsy, she got a call from her niece, Alisha Gruenloh, who saw a billboard in Colorado Springs informing the public that radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.


“That alerted me,” Heath said.


So before making her trip south, Heath bought a digital radon detector and set it to start measuring the air in her home on Schoonover Street in Gillette. She set the detector to make a reading based on a multiple-day sample size.


When she returned from Colorado soon after, the detector measured 7.75 pCi/L in her home, nearly twice the danger level.


“If there’s even one chance out of 100 that radon has caused what I’ve been through, then I’m on a quest to educate people about radon,” Heath said.


She got a radon meter and has since kept a steady eye on the fluctuating radon levels in her home, but there are other ways to measure radon levels inside of a structure.


The Wyoming Department of Health offers free single-use test kits available at Those tests are entirely free, Herrington said, with the test kit, shipping and lab analysis all included.


Buying a radon detector is another option, as is borrowing or sharing one among family, friends and neighbors.


Heath gave her radon detector to her brother, George Hixson, who lives on Sioux Avenue in Gillette and detected radon levels of almost 8 pCi/L in his home, about twice the danger level.

“It really does vary,” Herrington said of indoor radon levels even in the same general areas, noting that there have been houses on the same street that have measured drastically different readings.

“There isn’t a ton of rhyme or reason that we can really determine,” she said.


When it comes to protecting homes, there are radon-resistant measures new builds can have. But for those who do find elevated radon levels in their home, there are steps to lower them to a safe level.


Heath’s husband, Brian, crafted a homemade mitigation system for their home. Basically, with a pump and hose that sucks the air from their crawlspace to outside of the house, they were able to lower their home’s radon levels below the 4.0 threshold.


There are professional radon mitigation services that can be hired to install systems that accomplish the same result. With ways to lower the levels, for many in Wyoming and elsewhere, the first step is to simply test for radon.


“I would definitely say that regardless, anybody who lives in the state of Wyoming should be getting a short-term radon test kit and testing their home,” Herrington said. “By the time you start to see the health symptoms, you’ve already had pretty lengthy exposure to radon.”


Although Heath’s testing and alternative treatments for her tumor have continued, she is in good health now. She’s changed her diet, lost 20-25 pounds and her cough is “100% better.”


For now, the tumor and mystery surrounding it remain still in place. But her mission to educate the community is just getting started.



How to test for radon?


There are a few ways to measure radon levels in your home and mitigate those levels if they're above the recommended 4 picocuries per liter of air, or pCi/L, threshold.


Free single-use test kits from the Wyoming Department of Health can be ordered by visiting


Radon detectors can be ordered from various vendors online and range in price from about $100 and up. These can be reused and shared and can measure readings over various lengths of time.


This story was published on Jan. 24, 2023.


News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
14 W. Main St.
P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
Fax: (307) 746-2660

Email Us