Radon is a common threat to home safety that many people are not aware of. This naturally-occurring gas has been linked with cases of lung cancer, and is a particular risk in some regions of the country that the Environmental Protection Agency has kindly mapped out for the public benefit (though the agency recommends that all homes be tested for radon).
The problem is that it could be leaking into your home right now and accumulating in the air, making you sick over time. How do you know if your home has radon, at what level is radon dangerous, and what should you do about radon gas in the home? We’ve got the answers to all these questions!
What is radon and why does it matter?
Radon is a byproduct of the decay of certain radioactive elements. The gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless: think silent but deadly. It occurs naturally in the earth and in low levels in the air, but in a house, poor ventilation can trap radon inside, and long-term exposure to the chemical can lead to cellular mutations that may cause lung cancer.
Research on cancer shows that this disease happens when a cell mutates and goes rogue. The body normally checks such cells using a variety of means, but the more of a carcinogen the body is exposed to, the more cells have a potential to mutate, and the more likely it is that one will be missed. One cell with the wrong mutation is all it takes.
Outside, radon levels usually hover around 0.4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), and for many people, natural radon is the largest source of background radiation exposure. The EPA generally recommends that any levels in excess of 10 times this amount are a cause for concern and the need for radon mitigation; if a home has a measurement of 4.0 pCi/L, for example, that’s a sign of a problem. If the measurement ranges between 2 and 4 pCi/L, that’s not great news, and you might need a followup test and some abatement measures.
Is it in your home?
The short answer is: yes, probably. The question isn’t so much whether there’s radon in your house, but how much radon there is, and the only way to learn that is with a radon test. Basic tests use a simple absorption medium; homeowners put out the test and follow the instructions to collect it after a set period of time and send it in for analysis. More sensitive and accurate testing repeatedly samples the air to get an impression of radon levels in the air over time.
You may be able to get a test for free or at low cost. Consider starting with a basic kit. If it reports high levels, then contact a radon specialist for information on more detailed sampling to get accurate numbers so you can make your next move. You should also have your water tested in this case, as radon can enter groundwater and make you sick — if you do have radon in your water, your local plumber can help you with the problem.
If you have too much radon in your home, it’s typically the result of bad ventilation, although your home site may also be the problem. Don’t panic: you don’t need to pack up and move. You need to talk to an experienced contractor about the best options for managing the issue. Suction fans, which pull air out of the basement and low-lying areas of the house and vent it through the roof, are one of the best ways to get rid of radon.
Radon sealing and pressure ventilation were once widely recommended for managing radon levels, but no so much anymore. New research shows that suction is the way to go in terms of getting rid of the gas as well as keeping your home running efficiently. If your contractor recommends these older methods, ask why, and inquire about special circumstances in your home that might be driving her to consider these options.
You also need to be especially careful in the winter, when your home typically isn’t as well ventilated because it’s cold and you don’t want to lose heat! Follow our ventilation tips for winter to keep your home air healthy without needing to wear a parka indoors.
Commit to getting your home tested for radon this year if it hasn’t been tested recently: it’s worth it!