In the news of late, there has been a lot of coverage of radon and its associated risks. Homeowners are often faced with taking action to mitigate radon’s effects and to reduce their insurance rates. What is radon? How can a homeowner test for it? When and how should the test be performed?
Radon, to begin with, is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas. It is produced by the natural breakdown and decay of uranium in the soil. It occurs everywhere soil is found. Radon tends to collect in close spaces, and so it is often found in older homes with basements or crawlspaces.
Geological features also tend to favor the incidence of radon. The Southeastern United States, for instance, is honeycombed with natural caves. Since these caves have poor ventilation, radon tends to collect in them, and houses built over a cave-heavy area are likely to have radon problems, as well.
Since radon is radioactive, it has long been targeted as a carcinogen or cancer-causing element. The gas itself is not the carcinogen, however. What causes cancer is the solid deposits radon leaves behind. This radon daughters are thought to increase the chances of lung cancer, especially in those who are already smokers. It is also suspected as a carcinogen for other types of cancer, but so far, studies have not made a definitive connection.
A homeowner should think about testing for radon if the home has a basement or crawlspace, and if the homeowner does not know that the home was built using radon mitigation techniques. Testing is easy. Passive test kits ($20-$30), usually either made of activated charcoal or alpha track testers are available at most home improvement stores, from the state and local health departments and from the National Safety Council. Alpha track testers include specially treated plastic strips that are marked when hit by radon alpha particles. Both kits come with complete instructions.
Passive kits are easy to use. The homeowner simply follows the instructions for activating the kit, places it in a spot like a basement or low part of the home (places where radon is likely to accumulate) and leaves the kit in place for a specified period of time, perhaps a month or so. When the kits have been used, they are then sent to a laboratory, which analyzes the kit and sends the homeowner a report on the findings.
Active test kits are available, as well, but generally are only used by professionals. The continuous radon monitor (CRM) is a kit that stays in the home for 48 hours. These are very expensive, usually in the $300 range or higher, which explains why they are generally used by professionals.
If a homeowner finds that the home has an unsafe level of radon, he should contact his local health department for assistance.
Professional contractors can come into the home and can do some things that will help mitigate radon accumulation. These include ventilating the space and putting down a plastic covering that will help shield the crawlspace from the radon particles. These measures will also help reduce a person’s homeowner’s insurance rates.
Many cities and states have building initiatives in place that require contractors to include radon mitigation measures in their building plans and methods for residential housing. These initiatives have been very successful in reducing radon accumulation in newer homes.
Radon testing is so easy, that any homeowner can do it. Testing for the gas and taking measures to mitigate it will not only give the homeowner a break on insurance premiums, but it could save a life.