Radon gas is a naturally occurring gas which cannot be perceived by humans – you cannot see it, smell it, taste it, etc. So, why is it a problem?
Radon gas is a carcinogen. You might think that “everything causes cancer” – but radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, resulting in as many as 20,000 deaths per year, about 2,900 of them people who have never smoked or been exposed to second hand smoke regularly. If you smoke as well, then your risk becomes even higher, and some studies indicate that children are more sensitive. Lung cancer is treatable, but it has a very low survival rate – only 11 and 15 percent of diagnosed patients survive past the five year mark. It is, thus, very important to prevent it.
Radon is a noble gas that reacts rarely – but it is not a stable isotope. Both common radon isotopes – 222 and 220 – are radioactive and that, rather than any toxin, is the problem. It comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in igneous rock and soil and, as it is water soluble, is sometimes found in wells. In other words, whether you are at risk from radon exposure depends in part on the geology under your home, work place or your child’s school. Radon emits alpha radiation, so this is like standing at the fence next to a nuclear waste site. Because buildings have lower air pressure than the soil around the foundation, radon and other soil gases are pulled into your home and then trapped there.
As radon causes no symptoms, the only way to know if your home or the one you are considering buying has elevated radon levels is to test – and as one in five homes has elevated levels, you should always test before purchasing a home. You can purchase a radon test kit and test yourself, or you can contact an approved contractor who can not only test for radon but help you with mitigation. If selling a home, you should consider doing radon testing and mitigation first, as it will improve your chances of making a sale if you can assure a buyer that radon levels are below dangerous levels. However, as a buyer, you may not want to take the sellers word for it. Radon testing is cheap and can be combined with inspections for mold, lead, asbestos, etc. If tests show more than 4 pCi/L of radon, then mitigation is necessary. I also recommend it if levels are between 2 and 4 piCI/L. The test will take about 2 days to complete.
New homes are often constructed with radon-resistant features, generally including a gas permeable layer under the flooring system to allow gas to flow away from the house rather than into it and sealing to keep gas from coming in through below ground openings. For existing construction, select a qualified contractor and talk to them about radon reduction systems. The most common system uses a suction system to pull radon from under your home and vent it into the air above. This can cause a slight increase in utility bills – but it is worth it for your family’s health.
Never buy a home, especially in areas where radon levels tend to be home, without testing for radon and making sure there is some kind of radon reduction system in place if necessary.