Radon is a colorless, tasteless, naturally occurring radioactive gas found in soil and rock that is a by-product of decaying uranium. You might be thinking, I’ve heard of uranium, don’t they make bombs from that? Well, yes they do, but uranium occurs naturally in rocks all around the globe. Some areas have a natural propensity to have higher concentrations of uranium than others.
Why radon is dangerous
We are all walking around with a bit of radiation in our bodies, and radon is by far the largest contributor to a person’s overall amount of radiation they are carrying around. Breathing high doses of radon has been scientifically proven to cause lung cancer. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, radon could be the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking causing 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States. Radon-induced lung cancer ranks as the 6th leading cause of cancer deaths overall. Other forms of cancer may be related to radon exposure. Studies are underway to see if there exists a relationship between radon exposure and leukemia.
Where radon is
Remember radon gas is formed as a by-product of soil containing granite or shale (the two of which carry larger than average amounts of uranium). But we’re talking very small amounts. On average, every square mile of surface soil, to a depth of 6 inches, contains only 1 gram of radium which is responsible for releasing radon into the atmosphere. Worldwide, the amount of radon varies greatly and is variable within a given region and even from room to room in a house.
Is radon system fits in my home?
Radon exits the ground and can seep into your home through cracks and holes in the foundation. Radon gas can also contaminate well water. We know that radon concentrations are usually higher in areas near major fault lines so in Southern California we should be aware and take the proper precautions.
Knowing the characteristics of radon gas should help protect you and your family from exposure. First, radon gas being heavier than air tends to settle in low lying areas. With adequate ventilation, radon gas cannot become concentrated to a level to cause harm. On the other hand, in enclosed areas such as inside buildings, basements and crawl spaces, radon gas levels can become harmful. Second, if you smoke, stop! The effects of radon exposure in people that smoke is synergistic; i.e. the effect of smoking coupled with higher than average levels of radon exposure is greater than the sum of the two parts measured separately.
The EPA claims that 1 in 15 U.S. homes has radon levels above the recommended guideline. Their guideline of what is acceptable is roughly equivalent to receiving 200 chest x-rays over one’s lifetime. Their current recommendation (and that of the US Surgeon General) is that all homes be monitored for radon levels.
How to test for radon
Home kits are available in most home centers but it is claimed that their results might not be reliable. A better option would be to hire a professional home inspector with experience in radon testing. Professional tests are reliable in determining if your home has areas in it where radon levels are above the threshold set forth by the EPA. The tests are non-invasive and begin by placing a measurement device near the floor on the lower level of the home. Additional tests may be recommended by the inspector if you have any granite surfaces in your home, like a kitchen countertop. Other than placing the collection devices where recommended, nothing is done. There are some specific instructions that you must follow regarding the testing site(s) like keeping the windows and doors shut as much as possible. Testing may have to be postponed if your area is experiencing high winds or a pending storm, or if humidity levels are high (all of which may adversely affect the test results).
The inspector will return in 2-7 days to collect the devices after which time they are sent to a lab for analysis. Results are usually available shortly thereafter.
How to remove radon
The EPA recommends you use mitigation (control) techniques to reduce indoor radon if levels in your home are above the recommended threshold. Mitigation methods include adding positive pressure ventilation in your home which effectively creates a pressure differential (higher pressure in your home, gas cannot flow in). Sealing all floor penetrations to help prevent the gas from seeping into your home from below is also a good idea. Be advised that ventilating your basement or crawl space IS NOT RECOMMENDED as some people suggest. This flawed mitigation technique practiced by many companies could have the adverse effect of bringing more radon gas in which naturally exists outside the footprint of your home’s foundation.
Homebuyers: be sure to read this
If you are in the process of purchasing a home ask your Realtor to include a radon contingency in your offer to purchase. This clause states the maximum level of radon that is acceptable to you and your family. Afterwards, hire a company to survey the home for radon gas levels. Radon testing is offered by most professional home inspection companies so be sure to ask this question when interviewing home inspectors in your area. If radon levels are found to be above the levels set by you in your contingency, this clause will afford you the right to back out of the contract without penalty.
Facts to remember about radon gas
- Just because your next door neighbor’s house has tested high for radon gas does not mean your home is at risk.
- Houses with basements are not at a higher risk for radon than houses without basements.
- Radon levels vary region to region, and even from house to house on the same street.