Did you know that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer? Following closely behind cigarette smoking, radon is responsible for about 21,000 deaths per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, it could be lurking, undetectable, in your home right now. The EPA estimates that 1 in every 15 homes has elevated levels of radon. It is found in every area of every state and can even reside in your house but not the house next door.
Radon is a naturally occurring gas caused by the decay of uranium and radium, radioactive earth metals often found in rock and soil, and sometimes in well water. The dangers of radon were discovered in the 1950s in uranium mines, which hold high concentrations of radon, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when an employee at a nuclear power plant set off the radiation contamination alarms on his way into work that it became apparent that it might be a household threat.
Radon is not visible, has no odor, and by the time the effects manifest themselves in a person it is likely that significant lung damage has already occurred. Radon permeates into buildings from the ground. As warm air rises, it creates a vacuum causing continuous intake of the gases it contains. It wafts in through the tiniest of spaces and could seep through small cracks in the foundation, around pipes, sump pumps and drains, and even through walls and floorboards. Radon is a faceless enemy that subtly penetrates and slowly kills.
ARE YOU CONTAMINATED?
Detecting radon contamination is easy and could save your family’s lives. Though only some areas require mandatory radon testing when selling a house, it is a good idea to test your home regardless of whether you have just moved in, are planning to sell, or have been living there for years. In addition, it is recommended that a test be done before purchasing a home, and it is becoming common practice to do so.
There are several ways to test for elevated levels of radon in your home. There are two kinds of tests, passive and active, and both are easy enough to do yourself. The first, and quickest, is with a passive test. These are generally short-term and most commonly consist of placing canisters filled with charcoal in the location you’d like to test and leaving them for a period of time (usually from 3-7 days). If radon exists it will cause chemical changes in the item in the canister that, when sent to the laboratory in the pre-paid mailer included with the product, can then be analyzed. However, because radon levels can change from day to day or season to season, the EPA recommends doing two back-to-back short-term tests to maximize your chances of more accurately assessing your situation.
A second type of short-term test is called an alpha track detector and contains a piece of foil, film, or plastic that is used to count the particles thrown off by the radon gas decaying. Each particle leaves a tiny dent in the surface and the marks are then counted in the laboratory so that a figure proportional to how much radon is in the space can then be calculated.
The active test is long-term and requires the use of electricity. These are more accurate than the short-term tests, remaining in the home for 90 days or more, and are more likely to give you an overall year-round average radon reading than a short-term test. These are continuous monitors that record data at least once an hour, in addition to monitoring its own operation. Some even record temperature, humidity, air pressure, and other variances in the locale. Though there are some long-term tests that are relatively inexpensive, the better ones cost more than short-term testing, with some kits costing up to $400, and many are best administered by a professional.
FIXING THE PROBLEM
Now that you know how to test for radon in your home, what do you do if you find that you have elevated radon levels? Though the initial thought of having such a deadly gas amongst your family can at first seem daunting, realize that hundreds of thousands of homeowners have been in your shoes and have already made their homes safe.
There are several options that can prevent radon from entering your home. If you find a definitive place of entry, such as a sump pump, around a pipe, or through a crack in your foundation, you can simply block its path. This is a low-cost solution, but may not provide complete protection, as it may be only one of many sources of entry. The EPA does not consider sealing to be a primary reduction technique.
A second option is to create a sort of fresh air bubble under the building, which pushes the radon gas away from the home. An average cost is around $600 but, while this can be effective, it is unpredictable and needs loose soil and careful sealing.
Most mitigation techniques will involve some sort of fan that will draw air from below the basement floor and exhaust it above the roof, thus drawing the danger out and around the home instead of allowing it to rise through it. This can be done for under $2000. If you have a crawl space under your home you can also add a layer of special plastic, which will be sealed to the perimeter walls, under which the exhaust pipe will lie further minimizing the possibility of exposure.
Regardless of your method of detection, identifying radon in your home and fixing the problem ensures that the home you live in remains safe and comfortable. Don’t fear if you discover radon in preparation for selling your home. Take measures to prevent its entry and it can be used as a selling point, not a deterrent. No matter if you’re buying, selling, or have owned your home for many years, testing for radon is a wise and health-saving option.
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