Radon: Hype or Real Danger

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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There is no smooth sailing through life anymore, so it seems. There is always something that poses a new danger to your health or needs your attention on some level. Some of these issues are cut and dry while others are not so black and white. This is the case with radon.

Radon is a tasteless, odorless gas that is formed from the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium. It is usually found in igneous rocks and soil, which is one of the three main types of rocks. It has been detected in all states and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 8 million homes have elevated levels and current surveys suggest one of five homes have the problem.

The problem with radon is that it is a cancer-causing radioactive gas. Everyone seems to agree on this fact. The Surgeon General has warned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. If this is the case, why isn’t everyone running out and testing their homes?

It’s because there is more to it than just that statement and the statement itself is misleading. First of all, when radon is inhaled it does not stay in the lungs, but is exhaled. The problem is the atoms of radon attach themselves to dust particles that stay in the lungs, thus the lungs are exposed to radiation for longer intervals.

This is why workers whose livelihood took them to underground locations such as mines, tunnels and caves were more likely to be affected by the concentration of gases down there. For the normal person, it usually takes years of exposure before any problems present themselves.

Whether a person is a smoker or not plays an important role also. The disease rates rise drastically in ever-smokers, which are classified as anyone who has ever smoked regardless of how long they smoked or for how long they have quit. In these cases it is hard to tell what percentage of the disease is due to the radon and how much is due to smoking.

Since there is so much leeway in the guidelines, people also are prone to lean to the theory that maybe the whole radon situation is just a way to get people to soak money into expensive mitigation systems. It sure doesn’t give the average person who is only interested in protecting her health and the health of her family much to go on.

Of course no one can make an informed decision until you actually know if you have the gas present in your home. Radon detectors can be purchased at most local hardware stores. You hang the kit in your basement for a specified amount of time and then send the kit into a lab to be read. Each state has different guidelines but, usually, anything at 4 pCil/l or below is considered an acceptable level. The pCi/l stands for picocurie and is an established measurement unit of radioactivity. One unit is equal to one-trillionth of a Curie.

OK, enough of the technical jargon. If you do a test and it is high, what are the options? This is where it gets real sticky. The main objective is to get it out once it is in your home and then to keep it out. As with anything, this can be as simple as a do-it-yourself kit or as complicated as hiring a professional for thousands of dollars.

A couple contractors told me they had to dig a trench around an entire basement and then vent it out. Most mitigation systems use a low-volume ventilation fan that pumps air from beneath the basement floor via plastic pipe to a vent located at the roof line. The cost of operating the fan continuously varies with each home.

A better approach would be to use the RadonSeal deep penetrating concrete sealer. This sealer can be sprayed on, is non-toxic, permanent with no re-application needed, and reduces radon levels typically between 80 to 95 percent. Average cost is between $400 and $600. Of course, this works better if you are building a new house and have nothing in the basement. However, it is doable with existing structures; the only drawback is it may require moving things around a lot so you can spray the entire area.

This is a tough call to make, whether the danger from radon is hype or not. Whichever way, when there is an effective and economical fix available, it probably makes sense to take care of this issue sooner rather than later. If nothing else, peace of mind will be the reward.

Photo: Fotolia/Zerbor

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