Radon in Your Home - The Invisible Threat

Radon is a radioactive noble gas that is primarily produced through the atomic decay of uranium.  This elemental gas is odorless and colorless and contributes to possibly 20,000 deaths per year in the form of lung cancer, according to recent EPA estimates.

Radon appears in all parts of the United States and can often be found in high concentration in soil and rock containing shale and granite.  That being said, cases of high levels of Radon gas are no greater in the Granite State of New Hampshire than anywhere else in the US, so remember, Radon can appear anywhere.

The gas accumulates in basements and other enclosed structures and, as it breaks down, creates Radon decay products known as “Radon daughters”, tiny radioactive isotopes.  These isotopes attach themselves to particles in the air and, when inhaled, can emit radiation that damages cellular structures.  If the body’s attempt at repairing these damaged cells fails, the resulting mutation can lead to cancer.  Herein lies Radon’s deadly power.

The danger of Radon buildup in residences came to the forefront of our nation’s attention a mere two decades ago. A hapless nuclear power plant worker repeatedly tripped radiation detectors on his way into work, day after day after day.  After several weeks of investigation, the source was found to be an incredibly high concentration of Radon gas in his basement.  He and his family were exposed to a health risk estimated to be the equivalent to smoking 135 packs of cigarettes per day.  Radon became national news overnight and scared the heck out of many a homeowner across the country.

Radon gas usually seeps into dwellings through the ground and into cracks in concrete, directly through dirt floors as well as floor drains.  Radon can also find its way into deep-water wells, then into your plumbing and, eventually, you.  Odorless and colorless, the only way to truly know if you have a Radon problem is to test for it.  There are many companies available to perform this service for you, but be certain that they are approved through the EPA RMP program.  All service techs with EPA listed testing firms are obligated to carry an ID card indicating sufficient training in Radon detection.  Steer clear of companies that offer detection and mitigation services as this creates a conflict of interest insomuch as that if there is no actual Radon issue, an unscrupulous company may tell you there is, then offer to fix it.  As with everything, be vigilant.

There are several different types of Radon test available, each with their own benefits, shortcomings and applications.  The “Charcoal Absorption Detector” does what its name indicates, absorbing Radon gas into charcoal, usually over a short period of two to five days.  These detectors aren’t the most reliable and often require redundancy to ensure proper testing.  “On Site Air Monitors” are much more precise than the charcoal method and very tamper-resistant.  Attached to a computer, the results are available immediately.  The “Alpha Track Detector” is a device used for long term monitoring and to confirm results from less accurate measurement methods.  There are also special tests designed to detect Radon in water.  A typical water test does not include a test for Radon, so be sure to specify the proper testing if there’s a concern about Radon in your water supply.

Once Radon has been detected, you’ll need to fix the problem.  Radon Reduction Systems are relatively inexpensive and very effective in removing Radon gas from the air.  Sometimes, all it takes is the proper ventilation for either your basement or the underlying soil.  Another way of combating this deadly gas is with a spray-on foundation sealant that helps keep the gas at bay.  For Radon problems in water, there are “point-of-entry” solutions, to remove the Radon before it enters the home, and “point-of-use” solutions, to remove the Radon at the faucet.  Both are very effective and affordable.

If you’re in the market to purchase a new home, it might be wise to ask the seller if the home has been tested for Radon.  If not, you might ask them to test it now and save yourself some trouble later.  Don’t take “My neighbor tested fine” for an answer – Radon levels can vary greatly within a surprisingly short distance.  Be sure the home you’re interested in has been tested (especially if it has a basement) and don’t be afraid to request the results.  If you’re a seller, you may want to test the home before you place it on the market since more and more buyers are requesting this information.  If you find that your home has elevated levels, fixing the problem now can spare you a lot of headaches down the road and give buyers confidence in their purchase.

If your home has ever had a problem with Radon, you must continue to test for it, even with reduction systems in place and levels being non-existent.  Radon levels change from month-to-month and year-to-year, so it’s always a good idea to test, even if you’ve never had a Radon problem in your home.  You won’t discover Radon in your home without a proper test, so don’t wait until you’re as radioactive as a nuclear power plant worker – test your home for Radon today.

For more information on Radon, you can visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s Radon Website and read what the National Safety Council has to say about Radon  or contact the NH Department of Environmental Services regarding the Radon Program in the Granite State.