If you’ve sold your home or looked for a home recently, you’ve probably had discussions around whether you need to test for radon or not. Or perhaps you live in a state where testing for radon with a home sale is mandatory. But if you haven’t been down that road lately, you may be wondering what the big deal is with radon in the first place. You might even be wondering if your home has high radon levels.
Radon is one of those widely debated topics that people have very different opinions about. And while it’s not necessarily one of the most FUN topics when it comes to a healthy house, as a home inspector, building biology practitioner and healthy home coach, I think it’s a really important health and safety concern.
It can cause life altering health problems for those living in high concentrations of radon. The good news is even if your home tested high for radon right now, there are ways to remove the radon with an installed system. But the biggest concern when it comes to high radon levels is that many of us have no idea what our homes are testing at in the first place.
It’s a problem that you don’t know your home has until you’ve had someone test for radon or you yourself have done a radon test. As a licensed radon testing professional, I thought this would be a good chance to walk through some of the questions I get about radon and give you all the information I have about your own home and potentially high radon levels.
WHAT IS RADON AND WHAT ARE HIGH RADON LEVELS
If you’re a science buff, you may already know a little bit about radon from the chart of periodic elements. Radon gas was discovered in 1900 in Germany by Fredrich Dorn. He was originally studying the decay of radium, which is also one of the periodic elements.
Radium is naturally found in the earth and is an alkali metal. It was originally discovered in 1898 by the one and only Marie Curie.
Let’s look at how Radon gas gets produced through decay. There’s an extraordinary long decay chain produced from Uranium that decays. Uranium as it decays produces radium and then radon. Radon gas is produced in radioactive particles it decays from uranium. Uranium is a natural element found in nature in rocks and soil.
Basically, the gist of it is that radon is produced from naturally occurring rocks and soil in the earth and escapes into the air. Now, this isn’t a problem out in the open air of the world. The problem comes into play when the radon gas gets trapped in our homes and can’t escape.
Radon is a gas that is heavier than air, and so as it is produced, it oftentimes stays in the basements and lowest levels of our homes, where it can become highly concentrated. These highly concentrated levels lead to the high radon levels we talk about in terms of health concerns.
Radon is measured in picocuries (names after Marie Curie), and truly ANY level is somewhat unsafe. However, the EPA states that levels under 4.0 picocuries per liter are considered okay (not necessarily safe).
If you were to get a radon level reading of somewhere between 2.0 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) and 4.0 pCi/L, many radon professionals would advise that you do have the radon removed from your home as this is borderline high radon levels.
HOW DOES RADON GET INTO MY HOME IN THE FIRST PLACE?
As we just learned, radon enters the home as a gas from the soil. This means, any place your home has contact with the soil is a prime location that radon gas can enter. Most surfaces are not permeable by gas, however our homes are built with many joints and cracks where the gas can enter the home.
Radon gas flows through the path of least resistance. This means that if your foundation has cracks or gaps in it, radon gas will likely flow in through those spots. Another spot that radon gas seeps in is through floor drains and foundation drainage systems (sump pump its). Cracks in your concrete floor can also be a large entry point for radon.
While radon does come mostly from the soil, it can also be present in water. The problem here lies in the fact that when radon is present in well water it has nowhere to escape, meaning it stays in the water until it enters your home. The radon then escapes from the water you use while showering, cooking and washing dishes, entering the air inside your house.
The higher the radon levels in your soil and water and the more entry points your home has, means your home may have high radon levels.
Another consideration is the fact that our homes are extremely energy efficient, meaning there are very few ways for air and radon to escape from our homes. Extremely energy efficient homes actually create a negative pressure in their homes, which draws or pulls radon gas in through the lowest level.
DO HIGH RADON LEVELS AFFECT HEALTH?
The easy answer is “yes.” High radon levels most certainly affect our health and wellness. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. And if you are a smoker or you have smoked, radon exposure drastically increases your risk of lung cancer.
This study done by the World Health Organization shows the well established link between lung cancer and exposure to radon in your home. The Environmental Protection Agency also has quite a few statistics about the exposure to high radon levels in your home and the detrimental health effects it can have on your health.
WHO IS MOST AT RISK WHEN IT COMES TO RADON?
There are few things that come into play when it comes to health risks and high radon levels. Those who have smoked or are currently smokers have the absolute highest risk of developing lung cancer due to high radon levels.
However, because radon is carcinogenic, anyone who has lung damage or tissue in their lungs that has been weakened, is at risk. Radon cannot permeate the skin, and so the tissue in the lungs is the most at risk spot. This information page from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases talks about those who have the highest risk.
Children are also a high risk group because of the shape and size of their lungs. They also breathe at a faster rate than adults, which increases their risk by almost two times in comparison to adults.
Another risk factor is how much time someone spends in high concentrated levels. Those who have bedrooms in lower levels where there are high radon levels are at the greatest risk. The reason is that sleeping for 8-10 hours in an environment where high radon levels are means exposure is extremely high.
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY HOME HAS HIGH RADON LEVELS (TESTING OPTIONS)
The only true way to tell if your home has high radon levels is to have your home tested. There are maps that you can seek out to see if your area has generally high levels of radon, which may give you an idea of what level your home is. However, homes vary greatly even in close proximity to each other when it comes to radon levels. This is due to the path of entry and the negative air pressure in the home.
There are a few different ways you can test for radon. You can contact a local testing professional to do either a short term test or a long term test for your home. A short term test is more common and runs anywhere from two days to 90 days. If you choose to do a long term test it will be in your home for more than 90 days, but can be more accurate.
Testing professionals most commonly use a Continuous Radon Monitor, which is also what I use and trust. The reason I love using this type of radon monitor is there is a smaller margin of error when it comes to deploying the test. I can also read the results as soon as the test has finished as opposed sending it into a lab and waiting for the results, which is the case with activated charcoal canisters.
You can also purchase your own test kit from a hardware store, off of Amazon or through your local health department. These are often charcoal envelopes that need to be placed in your home. You’ll also need to be extremely accurate when it comes to the time you’re opening the charcoal to the time you’re closing the envelope.
The charcoal is then sent into a lab and they email or mail you your results.
Any of these are a great place to start when getting a read on your home’s radon levels.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY RADON TEST RESULTS?
The next big question after having your home tested for high radon levels is WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THAT INFORMATION?
First, it depends on what your radon levels are. If your radon levels come back under 2.0 pCi/L, there is generally nothing you need to do.
If your radon levels come back between 2.0 pCi/L and 4.0 pCi/L, it is recommended that you perform another test in the same spot to verify the reading. You will then take the average of the two tests to decide what course of action to take.
If your home has a reading that is over 4.0 pCi/L, your home has high radon levels. At this level, it is recommended that you contact a Radon Mitigation Company. They will be able to discuss with you various ways to fix your home’s high radon levels and remove the radon from your home.
There different options for systems and a mitigation professional can help you decide what is going to be the best and the most cost effective for your own home depending on the levels, size and foundation. This is why it’s important to contact a professional mitigation company or contractor if you do have high radon levels — for the health of you and your family.