Is Your Home Radioactive? Get it Tested for Radon

by Marcus Pickett

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This summer the NY Times, among other media outlets, broke a story that some granite countertops were giving off dangerous levels of radon. A surprise to many—both homeowners and home improvement contractors alike—the real news behind this story was not that some granite contained this radioactive material, but that granite suppliers and distributors weren't properly inspecting their product. We've known for nearly as long as we've known about radioactivity that stone within the Earth can be radioactive. Indeed, granite isn't the only culprit. Shale, among other stones, has been found to contain radon as well.

The National Institute of Health, the National Cancer Institute, and the U.S. Surgeon General have said that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, estimated at 21,000 annual deaths in this country. Needless to say, radon has been a problem before a few granite companies dropped the ball on their safety standards.

An Introduction to Radon
Radon is a radioactive gas that is emitted during the radioactive decay of radium, a daughter isotope of uranium. Radon has a relatively short half-life of 3.8 days and decays into solid particle radioactive isotopes. In this sense, radon is like a type of radiation delivery system. Solid radioactive material well beneath your home vents this gas which can make its way into your home through cracks in your floors, walls, gaps in your service pipes, construction joints, and through the water supply. Often, poorly sealed or damaged basements and foundations allow radon to enter your home, but no home is immune. Once in your home, you will inhale this radon, which subsequently becomes lodged in your lungs and continually emanating bursts of carcinogenic alpha particles.

Is Your Home at Risk?
The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that definitively unsafe levels of radon occur at 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter, or about 8 radioactive atoms per minute per liter). The EPA also encourages that homeowners take action to remediate radon levels in their home as soon as levels reach 2 pCi/L. Our friends, the European Union and Health Canada, set the number at 5 pCi/L. Needless to say, "unsafe" levels is a relative term, and virtually any level of radon increases your risk to lung cancer. At the same time, you'll never completely rid your home or your environment of radon, which is present in some levels in the general atmosphere. Moreover, low levels of radon gas have allegedly fought certain auto-immune diseases such as arthritis.

Geography also plays a large role in the occurrence of high levels of radon gas. Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania have all shown high rates of homes with unsafe levels of radon. On a more regional basis, the lower Midwest, New England, and the Plains and Mountains states have some pockets of high-risk area. That said, you can't assume your home is safe, as almost no area of the country is immune. Spokane County in Washington, for example, has some of the higher rates of radon, despite the relatively low rates of the Pacific Northwest. Overall, the EPA estimates that about 1 in 15 U.S. homes have unacceptably high levels of radon.

Radon Testing: The First Step is Finding Out You Have a Problem
What's particularly sad about the 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year is that—like the leading cause, smoking—it's entirely preventable. Nicotine addiction is one thing, but prolonged exposure to radon is the result of neglecting to test your home. Too many homeowners think they don't have the money to test for something that "probably isn't an issue anyway." The cost of radon testing is, perhaps, the biggest misconception about radon. Testing kits are available for less than $10. More detailed results will require more expensive testing equipment.

Short-term kits will yield results in about a week; long-term kits can produce results for up to one year. Quick results aren't always the most accurate. Radon levels, like the presence of mold in your home, fluctuate naturally. Occasional spikes of 4 pCi/L don't necessarily mean your home has a huge radon problem. You can also hire a professional radon detection and remediation service. If your initial test results are positive or inconclusive, you may need to hire them, anyway.

Solutions: Radon Remediation
The first step most radon remediation professionals will take is to determine the severity of the radon levels and the most likely access points, where radon is entering your home. Often, remediation starts beneath your home, sealing cracks in your foundation, surveying water lines and drainage, and depressurizing the space beneath your concrete slab. After this, some form of ventilation is installed. Exterior ventilation will push the radon-latent air away from your home and is the most cost-effective method for moderate radon problems. More serious cases may involve interior ventilation and filtration, pulling radon out of the air in your home. Although more expensive, the air purification systems will cleanse your home of all sorts of indoor air contaminants.

Marcus Pickett is a professional freelance writer for the home remodeling industry. He has published more than 600 articles on both regional and national topics within the home improvement industry.