What Radon Exposure Can Mean for You and Your Family
Below you will find a basic overview of radon gas – what it is, where’s it’s found, the risks associated with it and how to protect your home and family from it.
Radon is a naturally occurring gas that is formed when a radioactive element breaks down. Take uranium for example. When uranium, which is commonly found in rocks and soil, decays, radon gas is formed and can travel via air and water.
What is radon?
Radon is a gas, which means it can, and does, travel freely. It is found in every country around the world, and in the United States, high radon levels have been measured in all 50 states. Depending on the composition of rocks and soil in the area, radon levels can vary by region, city, town, or even neighborhood.
Where is radon found?
While radon is found at lower levels outdoors, higher levels are often found in homes and buildings. Basements and crawl spaces tend to have the highest concentration of radon because these areas are closest to the rocks and soil that are the source of the radon. Consequently, people who spend a lot of time in basement-level rooms may have higher levels of exposure.
Radon gas breaks down into solid radioactive elements called radon progeny. These can attach to small particles in the air, such as dust, making it relatively easy to breathe them into your lungs. As these elements break down, they emit radiation that can not only damage lung tissue, but also cause lung cancer in the future.
How can radon affect you?
There are no short-term effects to radon exposure, such as coughing, trouble breathing or respiratory symptoms, but long-term effects can be serious. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country, after smoking. For smokers, radon exposure can be particularly dangerous.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), both claim that long-term exposure to radon is directly responsible for approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year. However, it is important to note that not everyone exposed to high levels of radon will develop lung cancer in their lifetime.
Most radon exposure occurs in homes or buildings. The gas enters the building easily, through cracks in the foundation or floors, pumps or pipes, construction joints, areas around wires, and other openings.
How does radon exposure occur?
Small amounts of radon can also move from water into the air, where it can be inhaled. However, this is not a major contributor to radon exposure. Certain types of building materials, pose a bigger risk, 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.
For example, high levels of radon have been found in granite countertops, which are commonly found in homes. 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 those emitted by nearby rocks and soil.
The EPA estimates that approximately one in 15 U.S. homes has elevated radon levels – 4.0 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher, compared to 1.3 pCi/L, which is the average indoor level.
If you’re concerned about radon exposure at home
How can you determine the level of radon in your home? Start by testing your home. You can purchase a home detection kit and test your home’s radon levels yourself. 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 all homes and units located below the third floor be tested. That includes new homes that are considered “radon-resistant.”
If you prefer not to conduct 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 – www.epa.gov/radon/whereyoulive.html. Or if your community is professionally managed, you can ask your property management company for referrals.
If your short-term test determines high levels of radon, follow up with a long-term test to confirm the results. If those results are also high, there are steps you can take to mitigate the problem. Start by sealing any cracks in your walls and floors. While this is a good start, it 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.
What to do if your home’s radon levels are high
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. This will ensure both scenarios are handled properly and safely. Beware, if reduction techniques are not handled properly, they can cause additional safety dangers.
Active soil depressurization (ASD) is also 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).