What is radon? This radioactive gas is the product of the natural decay of uranium in soil, rock and water. That means it’s likely in the air you breathe every day.
While the potential health risks of radon are very low in small doses, prolonged or high level exposure can lead to serious health concerns – including lung cancer.
Keep reading to find out the health concerns of radon, how to test for radon and what to do if you find radon in your home.
Why is radon dangerous?
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., second only to smoking. Here are some of the health effects:
- Lung damage: Radon gas decays into radioactive particles. You inhale these particles into your lungs when you breathe the air that contains radon. As the particle decay continues, energy is released that can damage your lung tissue.
- Lung cancer: The damage radon causes to your lungs can eventually lead to lung cancer. Scientists estimate that between 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States are directly linked to radon exposure each year.
- Increased risk for smokers: Research shows that smokers are almost seven times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers when exposed to the same amount of radon.
How does radon get into homes?
It is estimated that about one in every 15 homes in the United States has a radon problem. High radon levels are possible in homes of any age or location. Here are some other factors that can increase your home’s exposure to radon:
- Radioactive metals in soil: Homes built on soil rich in radium, thorium and uranium tend to have higher radon levels since radon is produced when these elements decay.
- The ground: Radon comes from the ground and then becomes airborne. Because radon comes from the ground, the highest radon levels can often be found on a home’s ground floor or basement.
- Cracks in your home: Radon often enters a home through the cracks in floors, walls or foundations. Cavities in the walls or gaps around pipes are also viable entry points.
- Building materials: Materials such as brick, marble and granite contain naturally occurring radioactive materials at very low levels, reports the Environmental Protection Association. That’s not usually cause for concern, but as these radioactive materials decay, they can contribute to increased radon levels in your home.
- Water supply: Your water supply can also be a source of radon if the water comes from a well where radon is present.
- Well-insulated and tightly sealed homes: While everyone wants a warm and cozy home, this build makes it difficult for the radon to escape.
What are normal levels of radon in a house?
Radon is measured in picoCuries per liter (pCi/L). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if your home has radon levels at or above 4 pCi/L, it’s important to fix the problem as soon as possible.
However, since there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, the EPA recommends that homeowners consider remediating the problem for radon levels between 2 and 4 pCi/L.
For context: The EPA reports that the average radon level in American homes is about1.3 pCi/L. In outdoor air, radon levels average around .4 pCi/L – about 10 times less than the action level specified by the EPA.
How do you test for radon?
Radon testing is the best way to accurately determine your household radon exposure. Since radon is odorless and colorless, you need special equipment to detect it. Here’s what to know about radon tests:
- Experts are here to help. A great first place to start is your state radon office. There, you can find and order qualified test kits in your area, or find a trusted professional who can administer a test for you. Another trusted resource for information, or to order radon tests online, is sosradon.org.
- You have options. Radon testing devices come in two main types. Your state or local radon official can explain the difference between available tests, such as short- and long-term devices, and help you find one that fits your needs and budget.
- Passive testing devices, which don’t need power to function, include charcoal canisters, alpha-track detectors, charcoal liquid scintillation devices, and electret ion chamber detectors.
- Active testing devices, such as continuous radon monitors and continuous working level monitors, need power to function. They usually take an hourly reading and provide an average result for the length of the test period. However, they usually cost more.
- At-home tests are affordable. At-home tests are relatively inexpensive, approved by the EPA and can be purchased from your local home store for around $15. Make sure to read the labels to make sure the test is approved by a qualified laboratory.
What should you do if you find radon in your home?
Radon has been detected in your home. Now what do you do? First and foremost, don’t panic. Radon is everywhere. If your radon level exceeds recommended levels, it’s time for you to actively pursue radon-removal solutions.
When it comes to tackling the problem, you have options on how to reduce radon in your home
- Consider short-term solutions. A short-term solution is to increase the ventilation throughout your home. Also, you can limit the amount of time people spend in rooms (such as your basement) with a high level of radon.
- Explore long-term solutions. A long-term solution would be to purchase a radon-reduction system. These systems are relatively affordable, averaging under $1,000 for most installations (although a system for a larger home or property will be more expensive). A radon mitigation system can reduce your home’s radon levels by up to 99 percent.
- Hire a professional contractor. You also have the option of hiring a professional radon-mitigation contractor. Some states require that such contractors maintain a license. To find a licensed contractor, contact your state radon office. You can also find a list of radon mitigators certified by the National Environmental Health Association on their National Radon Proficiency Program website.
While radon levels exist everywhere, you shouldn’t tolerate excessively high levels in your home. There are ways to detect and treat radon on your home, so there’s no need to fear the harmful effects of this gas.
How can I reduce the risks of radon?
Even if you don’t have high levels of radon in your home, there are still precautions you can take stay proactive.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking puts you and your loved ones at a greater risk of lung cancer when radon is present.
- Increase airflow in your home. Use fans and open windows and vents to increase circulation within your home. This strategy, however, will only temporarily decrease radon levels.
- Seal cracks. Keep radon from seeping in by sealing cracks in the floors and walls with materials like plaster or caulk.
- Do your research when buying a home. If you are purchasing a new home, ask about radon resistant construction techniques. It is easier to construct a home with these precautions than to add them in later.
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