Radon gas: Less a question of if than of how much

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
Caution: The air you’re breathing may be hazardous to your health.

And the culprit is not terrorism, but Mother Earth herself.

Radon gas is produced naturally by the earth from the radioactive decay of uranium which is present throughout the earth’s crust.

Because the air pressure in your home is lower than that of the soil around the foundation, your house works like a vacuum cleaner, sucking air from the soil beneath the foundation.

If there is radon in that soil, it gets pulled into your home and can accumulate over time to dangerous levels.

Radon is found all over the United States, but it is more prevalent in certain parts of the country.

“The area we live in is a pretty high problem,” said Gary Boesker, who owns Boesker Home Inspections Inc. in Canton and is one of the few people in the state certified in both radon measurement and correction.

“There are three levels of alarm,” he said. “We are in the red zone. There is a finger of red on the geographical map of radon gas. We are in that big red blob.”

The Environmental Protection Agency uses five factors to determine radon potential: indoor radon measurements, geology, aerial radioactivity, soil permeability, and foundation type.

The EPA’s map of radon zones assigns each county to one of three zones based on radon potential.

Marion County and counties to its north and west fall in the red zone-the highest radon potential-with a predicted average indoor radon level greater than 4.

Radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). Radon levels outside typically measure about 0.4 pCi/L. The average indoor radon level is about 1.3 pCi/L. When the level indoors reaches 4 pCi/L, it is considered a threat to your health over the long term.

“These decayed products are what humans were not designed to breathe,” said Boesker. “All agencies now agree that radon is a cancer causing gas. It is a Class A carcinogen.”

The risks of radon are more widely known and studied than other cancer-causing substances because underground mines have served as a lab for hundreds of years. The estimates of radon risks are based on data from human studies.

The EPA estimates about 20,000 people die each year from radon, more than the number of deaths caused by drunken driving. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, second only to smoking. And people who smoke and live in a home with high radon levels are putting themselves at even greater risk for lung cancer.

Unfortunately, homeowners have no way of knowing whether your home has a radon problem without testing.

“You cannot see, smell or taste it,” Boesker said.

According to the EPA, any home can have a radon problem. “This means new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without basements.”

Experts are quick to point out that homes with elevated radon levels can be found in any of the three radon zones. They recommend that homes be tested regardless of zone.

And just because your next-door neighbor doesn’t have a radon problem doesn’t mean your home is also safe.

The bottom line is you can’t make an educated guess about whether your home has unacceptable levels of radon-the only way to know is to test.

To test your home, you may either do it yourself with one of the test kits available, or you may call in a professional like Boesker.

Radon-testing kits are available through county extension offices. In Marion County, the kits are available at the extension office in Marion and cost $5.50 plus postage (if they are mailed).

Boesker cautions that the home kits will give you only a snapshot of the radon level in your home. Since the test is done over a three-day period, it won’t reflect the cumulative amount of radon.

“What you are testing is a small amount of time, and conditions vary,” Boesker said.

He said homeowners must also be careful to follow the directions on the kit in order to get a valid result. If the directions aren’t followed to the letter, the collection device may not do a good job collecting and containing the gas, and the results will be flawed.

“You can easily botch it up by not following the rules,” he said.

To conduct a radon test, the measurement device should be placed in the lowest-lived level of the home.

For example, if you have a basement but are down there infrequently, you should set up the measurement device on the first floor rather than in the basement.

After the sample is collected, it is sent to a testing lab for analysis. The results will tell you the radon level in your home and give you more information about radon and what to do if you have a problem.

The do-it-yourself devices will generally tell you if you have a high reading and hence a problem, but Boesker said it is difficult to interpret readings under 10 because a low reading may mean the test was too short or that it was conducted improperly.

Homeowners who want a more accurate test may purchase a radon monitor. The monitor is a 110-volt device with a digital readout that plugs into an outlet and will give you both the short-term and long-term radon levels in your home.

Boesker said those devices sell for about $75 and are available from radon inspection specialists or over the internet. He pre-tests all radon monitors he sells to ensure they provide an accurate reading.

Since the homeowner owns this device, he or she can keep it plugged in to monitor the radon level over time, or can share it with friends and family members.

For the most accurate results, Boesker recommends the electronic testing that is done by a professional. That test costs about $125.

“I set up in a home for two days,” he said. “After that we download the information, and, based on that information, we can see the radon gas level every hour and tell if it is a valid test.”

Boesker said he finds unacceptable levels of radon in more than 50 percent of the homes he tests.

“It is here,” he said. “If you test, you will find it.”

After the test, Boesker meets with the client to explain the results and discuss treatment options if the radon level is high.

The fix for the problem varies.

“We try to get ahold of the gas before it gets into the living space,” Boesker said. “We suck the air out from underneath the floor in the basement.”

That can be done in several ways, depending on the type of home, whether it has a basement or crawl space, and whether it has an existing sump pit.

“The most typical way is to work with the sump pit to pull the gas out,” Boesker said. “But there are many other ways. Every house is different.”

In most cases, the fix involves installing a system with a vent pipe and fan. Installation of such a system does not require major changes to the home. The fan can be installed in a variety of locations, including the garage, attic or on the outside of the house.

The system works like a major appliance and runs around the clock. The fix is permanent in the sense that the device will continue to do its job over time to remove the gas from the house. The gas will still be present under the house, but it will be vented outside where it will be dispersed into the air.

Boesker said most houses can be fixed for $1,500 or less.

As an alternative, Boesker said some homeowners have opted for a fresh-air exchange system that is designed to bring in fresh air and expel the inside air outside. In addition to reducing the radon level by constantly replacing the air with fresh outside air, the system has the added benefits of reducing allergens and dust in the home.

“The system will remove everything in the air over a period of time,” Boesker said. “What we have outside is better than what we have inside.”

The air exchanger is an option only in homes with fairly low radon levels, since it will remove just half the radon.

“If you’re close to a 6, you can cut it to 3 with an air exchanger,” Boesker said.

The best news for homeowners who find they have a radon problem is that the problem is fixable.

“I haven’t found a house yet I couldn’t fix,” he said.

The EPA recommends having any home you are buying or selling tested for radon.

Home sellers are required to disclose if they are aware of any radon-gas issues, but Boesker said he believes many people who are aware of a problem lie because they don’t want to pay to have the problem fixed. He advises home buyers to have the home tested for radon unless there is documentation that the test has already been done and any problems fixed.

Although a home inspection does not automatically include a radon check, Boesker said home buyers often have them done at the same time.

“It’s a good way to get started,” he said. “The time you need to know about your home is before you buy it.”

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