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Radon Gas at Home

Radon Gas at Home


You can’t see it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it. Radon gas is a silent threat.

Radon gas affects approximately one in every 15 homes in the United States at a level above which the EPA recommends corrective action. 

A naturally occurring radioactive element, Radon gas sneaks into homes and buildings and threatens people's health everyday.

Tap Score has written this guide to understanding radon as a gas: what it is, how you can be exposed, how it can affect your health, and how to protect your home against it.

What is Radon Gas?

A naturally occurring radioactive element, Radon is formed when uranium, thorium, or radium decays. As it decays, radon emits alpha radiation which is harmful to humans.

Radon forms from the natural breakdown of soil, rock, and water. It diffuses into the air you breath. It is found all across the United States and generally exists in very low concentrations outdoors–we breathe it everyday! Radon can also occur in water (see our guide on radioactive water here), but the biggest health risk is airborne radon.

We have some good news: Radon gas contamination has well-known solutions. So, read on and find out what you can do about this potential threat lurking in your home.

How are you exposed to Radon?

The most common means of exposure is through the air we breathe, because radon can enter through cracks in your homes (in floors, walls, foundations etc.). It can also accumulate from contaminated building materials or from wells that contain the element. Homes that are well insulated, tightly sealed, or built on contaminated soil are most frequently at risk. 

Radioactivity is measured in Curies (Ci) after the French physicist Marie Curie, who was a prominent leader in radioactive element research. One Curie is equivalent to the amount of radiation given off by one gram of radium, and one pico Curie (pCi) represents the decay of about two radioactive particles per minute.

The average outdoor concentration of radon is around 0.4 piC/L (liter). Critical concern arises when indoor air radon levels are elevated above the average of 1.3 pCi/L–but the level at which EPA recommends you take corrective action is above 4 piC/L.

What are the health impacts of Radon gas?

Airborne radon itself is not hazardous. However, the products of radon decay, which is inevitable, are a different story. In fact, the consequences can be fatal.  

The largest health concern regarding radon exposure is lung cancer. In fact, it is the number one cause of lung cancer amongst non-smokers. During decay, radon gives off tiny radioactive particles. When these a particles are inhaled over a long time period, they damage the cells that line the lungs. It is responsible for 21,000 lung cancers deaths annually, and 2,900 of these deaths occur among people who have never smoked. If you are a smoker, your risk of radon-related lung cancer is substantially higher.

What Can You Do About Radon?

There are a few lifestyle choices–in addition to not smoking indoors–that may increase your chances of developing cancer. If you spend lots of time indoors in a home with elevated levels of radon, you are putting yourself at a higher risk. Also, if you burn wood or coal in a home that has high radon levels, the combination of additional particles in the air with radon can increase your chance of lung cancer.

Testing for Radon

Due to its imperceptible nature, testing is the only sure fire what to know that you are at risk for radon exposure. It is recommended that you test your home every two years, every time you move, or make a structural change to your house. If you detect radon levels about 4 picoCuries (pCi/L) per liter of air, you should take action.

The EPA estimates that 8 million, or 1 in every 15 homes, have elevated radon levels. Because radon is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, it is very important to test for it regardless of whether you suspect you have a problem. There are two types of tests:

  • Short-term: Short term tests usually take about 2-7 days. You simply place a test kit on the lowest level of your home and leave it in a place where it will be undisturbed. Then, send the results back to a lab.
  • Long-term: Long term tests take at least 3 months. They also need to be placed on the lowest used level of your home and left untouched. Long term tests are usually more accurate because they collect more data and measure long term averages of radon levels.
  • If your test results show radon levels at 4 pCi/L or higher, it is imperative to take action. 

    Treatment for Radon

    There are several simple steps you can take. One of the quickest, most affordable, and easiest fixes: proper ventilation. However, other remedies require a skilled approach. The EPA recommends that you hire a contractor to assist you throughout the process of fixing your home’s radon problems, simply because it is a dangerous gas to handle and requires specific knowledge and skills. However, if you feel confident in your ability to test and treat radon in your home, there are many instructions online organized on this EPA page.

    Treatment and prevention techniques for radon include:

  • Gas-permeable gravel layer with plastic sheeting & a vent pipe: Gas is released from the soil and moves easily through the gravel. The plastic cover prevents gas from traveling into the home, and the gas is instead diverted to a vent pipe which runs up to roof to safely release the gas outdoors.
  • Sealing & Caulking: All gaps or cracks in the foundation and walls of the home are sealed to prevent radon gas from entering.
  • Venting: Installing house/room pressurization or heat recovery systems can increase ventilation throughout the home, bringing contaminated air outside and clean air inside.
  • What are the takeaways?

    Radon is a silent, but very risky threat. You should test for radon in your air regularly and there are simple measures you can take to both prevent and remedy the issue.

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