By Ben Hall
It's called the silent killer.
Radon is a radioactive gas that reaches dangerous levels in many Tennessee homes.
But incredibly many people never test for it.
The family of former Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker wishes they had tested for radon earlier, and now they are urging everyone to buy a simple test kit and test their homes.
Bob Barker spent his life in law enforcement.
"He loved his job," Connie Barker said as she reviewed family photo albums. "That's his uniform at the Hendersonville Police Department."
Barker remembers when her husband became Sumner County sheriff in 2006. When the last of their six children left home, they started traveling.
"This is Bob in Greece," she said pointing out a picture.
But everything changed last July when her husband complained about a stomach ache. Doctors discovered he had pancreatic cancer, and broke the news that he did not have long to live.
"The doctor told us when we came back from the Sheriff's Association that we had just a few weeks. We actually had four days. All we had was four days," Connie Barker said, unable to hold back her tears.
She buried her husband in August, and just a weeks later, Connie got sick.
"I had no idea what was wrong with me. I kept telling everybody that something is just not right," Barker said.
Now Connie is taking chemotherapy to fight stage four cancer of the esophagus.
She's determined to fight the cancer, and she's determined to find out what made her and husband so sick in their mid fifties.
Family friend Tony Allers is a home builder who thought it was worth seeing if their home had high radon levels. He ran a basic test and couldn't believe what he found.
"I was shocked," he said.
Radon occurs naturally when rocks and soil decay. It's everywhere. But when radon gets trapped in homes, long term exposure is dangerous.
"This was three times higher than what is considered acceptable," Allers said.
Tests showed more than 12 picocuries of radon per liter of air (12 pCi/l). The EPA says any level over four -- requires steps to lower the radon.
Vanderbilt Doctor Joe Putnam says radon is a big problem in Tennessee and a major cause of lung cancer.
A map from the EPA shows high risk areas for radon based on the types of rock and soil.
Many middle Tennessee counties including Davidson County are in Zone 1, which means the EPA expects many homes to test above the action level.
Lung cancer is the only cancer in which studies prove a direct link to radon. The Barkers had other types of cancers, but doctors cannot rule out that radon played a role.
"We know that patients who have radon exposure can develop other cancers but the cause and effect is not known," Dr. Joe Putnam said.
Tony Allers immediately started trying get the radon levels down by putting a thick plastic cover over the soil beneath the Barker's home.
"We're trying to keep what's coming through the ground from getting up into the houses," Allers said.
But new tests continue to show high levels of radon, so they may need a ventilation system.
"My grandchildren still come to this house and play, and I want it to be safe for them," Connie Barker said.
No one can say for sure what caused the Barkers cancers, but Connie Barker believes radon played a role.
She hopes this story inspires people to get a simple radon test kit.
You can get them at most hardware stores, and they cost about 13 dollars, but many county health department sell them for much less.
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