The Facts About Radon and What Exposure Can Mean for You and Your Family
If you asked most people to name a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring gas, often found in homes and buildings, that can pose a threat to our health and well-being, they are likely to say carbon monoxide. And they would be right. But could those same people name another? Most would fail to come up with radon, and yet it poses a similar risk. Below is a basic overview of what radon is, where it’s found, its risks and how you can protect your home and your family from it.
What is radon?Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that is naturally formed when a radioactive element breaks down. One such example is uranium, which is commonly found in rocks and soil. When uranium decays radon gas is formed and can travel via air and water.
Where is radon found?Because radon is a gas it can, and does, travel freely. Radon can be found all over the country, and in the United States, high levels of radon have been measured in all 50 states. Depending on the composition of rocks and soil in a given area, radon levels can vary by region, city, town, and sometimes even by neighborhood.
Radon is usually found in higher levels in homes and buildings and lower levels outdoors, such as in the air or in bodies of water. Spaces that are located closest to the rocks or soil that produce the radon, such as basements and crawl spaces, tend to have the highest concentration of radon. As a result, people who spend a lot of time in basement-level rooms may have higher levels of exposure.
How can radon affect you?Radon gas breaks down into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny. Because radon progeny can attach themselves to dust and other small particles in the air, they can easily enter the lungs. 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 long-term effects of radon exposure can be serious. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., second only to smoking. And for smokers, radon exposure can be especially dangerous.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), claim that 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. It is also important to note that not everyone who is exposed to high levels of radon will get lung cancer in their lifetime.
How does radon exposure occur?Radon exposure typically occurs in homes and/or buildings, such as schools and offices. It can enter buildings easily, through cracks in floors and foundations, construction joints, areas around wires, pumps or pipes and other openings.
Small amounts of radon can also move from water into the air, where it can be inhaled. Luckily, this is not a major contributor to radon exposure. A bigger risk to consider is 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, that is not always the case.
Take granite countertops, for example. Most health professionals will agree that, in the majority of cases, granite countertops emit very low levels of radon. But higher levels have been found. The EPA claims it’s doubtful that these radon levels are higher than that of 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.
How can you determine the level of radon in your home? The best place to start is by testing your home. You can easily test radon levels yourself by purchasing a home detection kit. Two types of kits 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 units located below the third floor. That even includes new homes labeled “radon-resistant.”
If you don’t feel comfortable conducting the test yourself, you can hire a professional radon expert or company to test the radon levels in your home. Home testing kits and qualified professional contractors can be found on the EPA website. If your building or community is professionally managed, you can always ask your property management company for referrals.
What to do if your home’s 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 of the long-term test are also high, you can take steps to mitigate the problem. A good start is to seal any cracks in your walls and floors. But this is usually not 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.
The EPA recommends hiring a qualified contractor with the right technical skills and experience to set up any radon mitigation systems or perform necessary repairs so as to ensure both scenarios are handled properly and safely. In fact, improperly performed reduction techniques can pose additional dangers.
Active soil depressurization (ASD) has also proven to be a cost-effective and reliable technique for radon reduction. It collects the radon from beneath the building before it can enter. The systems can be simple or complex, depending upon the design of the building. The operating costs of the fans are minor, due to their low power consumption (typically less than 90 watts per fan).