Every year long term exposure to radon causes more deaths than drunk driving. Yet not many people care to do a simple test to find out if their home has elevated levels of this invisible, odorless, tasteless gas that comes from the depth of earth.
What is radon and how it can end up in your home?
Radon is a radioactive gas which is formed in the process of the natural breakdown of uranium contained in soil, rock and water. When released into an open air radon does not create any problems. However, when if seeps into a closed space such as a house it can become trapped inside, accumulate overtime, and turn into a serious health hazard.
Radon is absolutely undetectable by any of the human senses. You can’t see it, taste it, or smell it. You and your family can be breathing in high levels of radon every day while being absolutely unaware of it.
Radon can find its way into your home through windows, unfinished floors, pipes, sump pumps, and cracks in the basement floor or foundation. It does not matter if your house new or old, well-sealed or drafty, with or without basement – any house can have a radon problem.
According to US National Radon Safety Board nearly one in every 15 houses in United States is estimated to have elevated radon levels. According to Health Canada Canadian numbers are very close.
What health problems are associated with elevated radon levels?
High levels of radon in your house increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Radon decays quickly and gives off small radioactive particles that can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe and damage lung tissue. This effect accumulates over a long time and can eventually lead to the onset of the disease.
Smoking is the first leading cause of lung cancer – this fact has become a common knowledge. Much less people know that chronic radon exposure is the second leading cause of this deadly type of cancer for general population and the first leading cause for non-smokers. If you or someone in your family is a smoker and you live in a home with high levels of radon, your risk of lung cancer is especially high.
According to EPA assessment radon is estimated to cause about 21,000 deaths per year in United States (compare to about 13,500 deaths resulting from drunk driving)
How can you find out that your home has this problem?
Though some different geographical areas tend to have more radon and others tend to have less you cannot rely on this information. The only way to find out for sure if your home has high levels of radon is to test for it.
Testing for the presence of radon is easy and inexpensive. You can do it yourself or hire a company to do it for you. If you decide to do it yourself look for a radon test in home improvement or hardware stores. If you can’t find one at a local store you can order one online.
There are short–term and long term tests available. A short-term test will stay in your home for 2 days to 90 days depending on the device. It will give faster results but these results will be less reliable than the ones that can be obtained with a long term test. A long term test will stay in your home for more than three months and up to a full year. It is more accurate because radon levels change from day to day and from season to season.
Once you have finished the test you will send it to a laboratory specified in the instructions and the results will be sent to you usually within a few weeks.
In the United States the concentration of radon in the air is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). Test result of 4 pCi/L and more is considered an elevated level.
In Canada radon is measured in becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m³). Remedial measures are recommended if your test shows 200 Bq/m³ or higher.
4 pCi/L is equal to 148 Bq/m³ so the Canadian safety threshold is a bit higher than the US one.
What to do if your home has a radon problem?
If the level of radon in your house is higher than the safety threshold you should hire an experienced certified contractor to recommend and install a radon reduction system for your home. This project may include for example sealing foundation cracks and other openings, putting one or more suction pipes underneath the house, adding a fan to alter the pressure at lowers levels and other measures. Most homes can be fixed for about the same cost as other common house repairs.
Radon reduction systems work very well and some of them can reduce radon levels by up to 99%.
The higher your levels of radon are the faster you would want to deal with it. There are no absolutely safe levels of radon so you might want to do something even if your levels are lower than a recommended safety threshold. They still pose a risk and in many cases can be reduced.
Beside the safety threshold there are two more numbers to keep in mind when evaluating the results of your radon test. The average radon levels are estimated to be about 1.3 pCi/L indoor and 0.4 pCi/L in the outside air. While ideally it would be good to match the outdoor levels, the indoor average or less would be a comfortable number as well.
Where to look for more information?
You can find more radon related information and recommendations at governmental sites: