Radon gas dangers in the home have become more prevalent, and can affect homeowners before radon is detected. Consider the story of Stanley, a nuclear power company employee from Pennsylvania. One day he arrived at work and the radiation monitors at the plant screamed an alarm. The experts were puzzled–how could Stan set off an alarm on his way in to work? The answer to this question brought to light one of the biggest environmental concerns of our time: Radon. It turns out Stan’s house had radon gas levels more than 500 times what was considered safe and Stan had carried the effects into work. Stan desperately needed a radon mitigation system to save himself and the health of his family.
What is Radon?
Radon is not an industrial chemical or synthetic creation. It occurs naturally when uranium in the soil breaks down, as do all organic compounds. If inhaled, radon can cause damage to lung tissues and can lead to lung cancer.
Although radon has been around since the dawn of time, it’s become a problem in the last 20 years or so, since the energy crisis led to the construction of “tighter,” more energy efficient homes. Years ago, when energy was cheap, homes were much draftier, and these built-in air leaks helped dilute indoor contaminants like radon to safe levels. However, as energy costs rose and home construction became tighter, indoor radon levels have also risen. Today, we need to pay close attention to our indoor air environment to make sure the air stays healthy and free of radon dangers.
Testing for radon gas is fairly simple. Within your own home, you can even do the test yourself. Many radon laboratories sell simple testing kits, which usually come complete with a mailer to send the kit back to the company for analysis. However, if the house you’re testing is one you’re buying, some state laws require the test be done by a licensed radon testing company. Likewise, if your radon test reveals a high level of radon gas, a radon mitigation systems will be needed and should also be installed by an experience, licensed radon mitigation professional.
How to do a Radon Test
All radon tests must be done in the basement or lowest livable level of the house and under “closed building conditions.” Except for normal entry and exit, this means all windows and doors, from the basement to the uppermost level of the house, must be closed for the entire test, which can be up to a week. While this may be difficult, especially in the summer, it is critical. If the windows are left open, a false high or low reading of radon dangers may result.
The most common types of radon gas tests are:
- Charcoal Absorption Canister: This is the most common radon test available and usually the least expensive. Testing consists of a charcoal-filled canister which is left in the home for a period of two to seven days. Then the test is sealed and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The lab will usually mail the result back to you within one week. This testing method is relatively inexpensive and reliable if done properly. However, it can take up to three weeks from the start of the test until the result is received.
- E-PERM Testing: E-PERM is short for “Electret-Passive Environmental Radon Monitor.” The way it works, however, is not as complicated as its name. As radon is formed, it gives off “ions” which produce a small electrical charge. The E-PERM is designed to measure the amount of electrical charge and convert this measurement into a radon level. Similar to charcoal canisters, this test for radon danger is usually done for two to seven days, but processing is much quicker as the testing company can usually produce a result within a day of the test completion.
- Continuous Monitors: These devices are among the more expensive radon tests available but have several distinct advantages. Continuous monitors sample air over a minimum two-day period and can produce hourly radon readings. In addition to the test result being immediately available upon test completion, the hour-by-hour test result can be analyzed to check for unusual air patterns in the house. This test is often chosen by people buying a house to make sure the “closed building condition” requirement is met by the sellers.
Most importantly, if the radon test result comes in high, don’t panic. Most buildings can be modified to reduce radon gas to safe levels by installing a simple radon mitigation system. In newer buildings, partial radon mitigation systems are even required during construction, just in case they are needed later to reduce or eliminate radon dangers.
How to Remove Radon Gas
The best source for radon information and remediation is www.epa.gov/radon. We found the following advice there:
- Test for radon before renovating. If you are planning any major structural renovation, such as converting an unfinished basement area into living space, it is especially important to test the area for radon before you begin the renovation. If your test results indicate a radon problem, radon-resistant techniques can be inexpensively included as part of the renovation. Because major renovations can change the level of radon in any home, always test again after work is completed.
- Use multiple short-term tests. The quickest way to avoid radon exposure is to test with short-term tests, which remain in your home for two days to 90 days, depending on the device. Because radon levels tend to vary from day to day and season to season, a short-term test is less likely than a long-term test to tell you your year-round average radon level. If you need results quickly, however, a short-term test followed by a second short-term test may be used to decide whether to fix your home. For radon test resources, click here.
- Install a radon reduction system. There are several proven methods to reduce radon in your home, but the one primarily used is a vent pipe system and fan, which pulls radon from beneath the house and vents it to the outside. This system, known as a soil suction radon reduction system, does not require major changes to your home. Sealing foundation cracks and other openings makes this kind of system more effective and cost-efficient. Similar systems can also be installed in houses with crawl spaces. Lowering high radon levels requires technical knowledge and special skills. You should use a contractor who is trained to fix radon problems. A qualified contractor can study the radon problem in your home and help you pick the right treatment method.
- Work with a certified contractor. Check with your state radon office for names of qualified or state-certified radon contractors in your area. You can also contact private radon proficiency programs for lists of local, privately certified radon professionals. For more information on private radon proficiency programs, click here. Choosing someone to fix your radon problem is much like choosing a contractor for other home repairs, so you may want to get references and more than one estimate.
The myth is that it is costly and difficult to solve a radon problem. Neither is true, so don’t let that stop you from testing your home to be sure you are safe from the health impacts of radon exposure.