When it comes to reducing your cancer risk, one important step could be right under your nose, or your feet. Getting your home tested for radon can help protect you and your family from a key cause of lung cancer.
Exposure to radon accounts for about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While that is nowhere near the 480,000 deaths a year caused by smoking, it’s still significant. And it’s the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.
What is radon?
Radon is a gas that occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts. It’s produced from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. It sometimes gets concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. It can enter buildings through cracks in floors or walls, construction joints, or gaps in foundations around pipes, wires or pumps. Radon levels are usually highest in the basement or crawl space.
When someone breathes in radon gas, it goes into their lungs, exposing them to small amounts of radiation. This may damage the cells in the lining of the lungs and increase a person’s risk of lung cancer. The risk is higher in those who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house.
Exposure to the combination of radon gas and cigarette smoke creates a greater risk for lung cancer than either factor alone.
How am I exposed to Radon?
Radon is a known carcinogen, which means prolonged exposure to high levels of Radon gas can cause cancer. In fact, the Surgeon General has declared Radon to be the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
Radon gas continually seeps into the air from the ground. Concentrations are low outside due to dilution of the ambient air. In poorly ventilated areas and enclosed spaces, radon concentrations can build up.
Four conditions must be present to enable radon to enter your home.
Two of these are geological:
- there must be uranium in the soil as a source material,
- and there must be permeable soil which allows radon to move through it to your basement or crawlspace
The other two conditions are determined by the house and its construction:
- there must be pathways for radon to enter the basement, such as holes, cracks, plumbing penetrations, or sumps (found in every foundation),
- and there must be an air pressure difference between the basement or crawl space and the surrounding soil.
If the air pressure is lower indoors than in the soil, air and gases in the soil will enter. All four conditions must be present to have radon. If you reduce any one, less radon will enter your home. The last two conditions, determined by the house and its construction, are the key ones for mitigation.
As a means of prevention, EPA and the Office of the Surgeon General recommend that all homes below the third floor be tested for Radon. Because Radon is invisible and odorless, a simple test is the only way to determine if a home has high radon levels. EPA recommends mitigating homes with high Radon levels and there are straight-forward reduction techniques that will work in virtually any home.
Who Should Be Worried about Radon?
Every home should be tested for radon. Radon has been found at elevated levels in homes in every state and the only way to know is to test. Your home can have elevated levels of radon while your neighbor’s home does not. Testing is the only way to determine if you have a problem. Radon testing is easy and inexpensive and it could save your life. Thousands of lung cancer deaths could be avoided each year if home and building owners acted to test and fix.
What Are the Risks of Exposure to Radon?
According to the EPA, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, with about 21,000 people dying annually from radon-related lung cancer – 2,900 of those being non-smokers. When you breathe in radon, it permeates the lining of your lungs and, over time, damages the cells with radiation. This can lead to lung cancer.
These risks associated with exposure to radon can be increased by several lifestyle habits, including smoking and burning wood, coal or other fuels in the home.
How Does Radon Get Into Your Home?
Because the pressure inside of your home is typically lower than the pressure in the soil outside, the home acts as a vacuum, pulling radon inside through several openings like:
- Cracks, pores and holes in the foundation
- Floor-wall joints
- Mortar joints
- Sump pump
- Soil in unfinished crawl spaces
- Well water
- Cavities inside walls
- Loose-fitting pipe penetrations
- Granite, brick, concrete or rock materials
While radon can enter the home through well water and building materials, the most common way it gets in is through soil around the house. While some areas of the U.S. are more prone to high radon levels, all homes are susceptible. The only way to know about the levels in your home is to test for them.
How To Test For Radon
There are a few different ways to test for radon. These are: short-term, long-term, continuous and professional radon testing. You can test for radon with a DIY test kit or a special detector, or you can hire a radon professional to administer a test. Each kind of test has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll go over below.
Whatever testing method you choose, make sure you perform the test in the lowest level of the home that is used – or could be used – as a living space. Before testing, close all doors and windows for 12 hours and keep them closed for the duration of the test – except when you need to enter or exit the area. Place the test kit at least 3 feet from exterior walls and about 2 feet above the floor. Do not test in high humidity, severe storms or high winds, as this weather can affect the accuracy of the reading.
Radon Test Results
Radon tests measure radon levels in picocuries per liter of air. While there is no safe level of radon, the Environmental Protection Agency set an action level of 4 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. This means that once radon levels reach or exceed 4 pCi/L, you must take action to fix the problem.
If your short-term test result is 4 pCi/L or higher, you should follow it up with a second short-term or long-term test to be sure. If your short-term test result is 7 or 8 pCi/L, you should take a second short-term test immediately.
Whatever your test results, there are things you can do to fix your radon problem and reduce levels to an acceptable amount of picocuries. Even if your radon levels are below 4 pCi/l, you may want to take the necessary steps to reduce your levels since any level of radon poses a risk to your health
Other Ways To Lower Radon Levels In Your Home
There are many simple ways to help reduce radon levels in the home. However, many are only temporary solutions and are not necessarily alternatives to professional mitigation systems. To lower radon levels, try taking the following actions:
- Seal cracks and holes in the foundation and walls that abut soil and rocks
- Seal your sump pump, if you have one
- Open windows to bring in fresh air
- Run vents and fans to circulate air
How Can I Protect Against Radon?
There are several ways to protect you and your family from the dangers of radon gas.
If you have an existing home with elevated levels of radon, you can fix the problem by having a radon mitigation system installed. A radon mitigation system consists of a vent pipe, fan and the proper sealing of cracks. This system collects radon gas from underneath the foundation and vents it to the outside of your home. If you need to have a radon mitigation system installed, it is best to contact a certified radon mitigation professional to do the installation. A list of certified professionals can usually be obtained by contacting your state radon program.
If you are building a new home, ask your contractor to install radon-resistant features. These features include gravel and plastic sheeting below the foundation, along with proper sealing of cracks and the installation of a vent pipe. Once the radon-resistant features have been installed and the home is completely built, make sure to perform a radon test, as the levels could still be elevated. If the radon levels are still elevated, a radon fan should be added to the system to lower the radon level.