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 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 test 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. The test 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 test 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.
Tom Kraeutler is the Host, Founder and Chief Home Improvement Evangelist of The Money Pit. He is a hands-on home improvement broadcast journalist and the kind of guy homeowners want to call at midnight when their basement floods. He first earned his home improvement stripes as a professional home inspector, amassing over 20 years experience learning how houses are put together, and how they fall apart!