Radon 101: Helpful Tips to Keep Your Family Safe at Home
Quick, name a colorless, odorless, naturally-occurring gas that can be found in homes and buildings and pose a threat to our health and well-being. If you said “carbon monoxide,” you’re right. Now, can you name another? If you had a bit of trouble coming up with “radon,” you’re not alone.
“Radon is more commonly found in homes than many people think -- in fact, my daughter and her husband are currently undergoing radon mitigation in their house right now,” said Lisa Leidy, a FirstService Residential community manager in the company’s Mid-Atlantic region. “It’s very important that homeowners educate themselves about radon and its health risks, and have their homes tested to make sure they’re safe.”
We want to help. Here is a basic overview of radon gas – what it is, where it’s found, its possible health effects and what you can do to protect your home and your family.
What is radon?Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that’s naturally formed when a radioactive element, like uranium, breaks down. Uranium is commonly found in rocks and soil, and when it decays, radon gas is formed and travels to other places via air and water.
Where is radon found?Since radon is a gas, it can – and does – travel freely. It can be found in every country around the world, and here in the U.S., high radon levels have been measured in every state. Radon levels can vary by region, city, town, or even neighborhood, depending on the composition of rocks and soil commonly found in the area.
Radon is usually found at lower levels outdoors, such as in the air and in bodies of water like lakes and rivers, and at higher levels in homes and buildings. The highest concentrations are usually found in basements and crawl spaces – that’s because they’re located closest to the rocks or soil that are the source of the radon. Consequently, people who spend more time in basement-level rooms in their homes or offices may have higher levels of exposure.
How can radon affect you?Radon gas breaks down into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny. These can attach to dust and other small particles in the air, where they can be breathed into your lungs and lodge in the linings. As these elements break down, they emit radiation – small bursts of energy – that can damage lung tissue and possibly cause lung cancer in the future – sometimes many years later.
Radon exposure does not cause any short-term effects, such as coughing, trouble breathing or other respiratory symptoms. But its long-term effects can be serious. The U.S. Surgeon General has called radon the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country after smoking – and if you smoke, it can be especially dangerous to be exposed to radon as well.
According to both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), long-term exposure to radon is directly responsible for approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year – many of these among people who have never smoked. But it’s also important to note that not everyone who is exposed to high levels of radon will get lung cancer during their lifetime.
How does radon exposure occur?For kids and adults, most radon exposure occurs in homes and buildings, such as offices and schools. Radon gas can enter buildings through cracks in floors and foundations, construction joints, areas around wires, pumps or pipes and other openings.
In addition, small amounts of radon can move from water into the air, where it can be inhaled – but fortunately, this is not a major contributor to radon exposure. A bigger risk can occur from exposure to certain types of building materials, especially those made from natural substances, such as wallboard and concrete. While many of these materials emit low levels of radon, this may not always be the case.
For example, take granite countertops, which are commonly found in many homes. Most health experts agree that in the majority of cases, countertops emit very low levels of radon. However, higher levels have been found in certain cases, but the EPA claims it’s doubtful these levels are higher than those emitted from nearby rocks and soil.
If you’re concerned about radon exposure at homeThe EPA estimates that approximately one in 15 U.S. homes has an elevated level of radon -- 4.0 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher, compared to 1.3 pCi/L, the average indoor level.
What can you do if you’re worried about the level of radon in your home? Start by testing. You can test levels yourself by purchasing a home detection kit. Two types are available: a short-term kit, which is left in place for several days, or a long-term kit, which collects samples for at least three months, providing a more accurate result. The EPA recommends that testing be conducted in all homes and apartment units located below the third floor – and that includes new homes labeled as “radon-resistant.”
If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, you can hire a professional radon expert or company to test the radon levels in your home. You can find home testing kits and qualified professional contractors by visiting the EPA website at www.epa.gov/radon/whereyoulive.html. In addition, if your building or community is professionally managed, you can ask your property management company for referrals.
What to do if your home radon levels are highIf your short-term test determines high radon levels, follow up with a long-term test to confirm these results. If the results are still high, it’s important to take steps to mitigate the problem. Sealing cracks in your walls and floors is a good start, but it’s not usually enough. One of the most common and effective mitigation methods involves setting up a sub-slab depressurization (SSD) system. SSD technology uses a fan-powered exhaust to draw radon gas from the soil beneath the foundation and vent it outside, far enough away from windows and other openings so that it will not re-enter.
Active soil depressurization (ASD) is another radon reduction technique proven to be reliable and cost-effective. ASD involves collecting radon from soil beneath the building before it can enter. ASD systems can be simple or complex, depending upon the design of the structure, and operating costs are usually small, due to the low power consumption of the fans used in the process (typically less than 90 watts per fan).
The EPA recommends hiring a qualified contractor with the right technical skills and experience to effectively set up radon mitigation systems and perform necessary repairs – after all, if reduction techniques are not handled properly, it can cause additional safety dangers. Again, for referrals, refer to the previously mentioned EPA website or consult with a good property management company for information and referrals.
Active soil depressurization (ASD) has proven to be a cost-effective and reliable technique for radon reduction, by collecting the radon from beneath the building before it can enter. The systems can be simple or complex, depending upon the design of the building. Operating costs of the fans are minor, due to their low power consumption (typically less than 90 watts per fan).