Radon is a silent threat you should take seriously
Ask Dr. Sue: Radon is a silent threat you should take seriously
By Dr. Sue Abel, columnist
Nov 14, 2006 - 07:26:17 am PST
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Dear Dr. Sue,
Recently I've seen a couple of articles in magazines about testing your home for radon. I've already installed a carbon monoxide monitor, and I'm the only person I know who has one. Is this something I really need, or just scare tactics to sell a product? I have three small children, or I probably would just ignore the whole thing.
Please don't ignore it! Radon really is something that you should test for, and should do something about if your home shows high levels. It isn't a rare problem, either. Approximately one out of every 15 homes in the U.S.is expected to show high levels. In 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency moved to educate the public about this very real danger.
Why do we care? Because it is estimated that radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer, right behind cigarette smoking. (Second-hand smoke comes in third.)
It is believed that about 16,000-20,000 deaths yearly are directly attributable to radon exposure, mostly through the development of lung cancer. Your children may be at greater risk than you are, because children breathe faster than adults, thus possibly depositing more radon on their lungs over the same time period.
Radon is a gas that can't be smelled, tasted or seen. It is present naturally in soils, rocks, underground water and air. It is produced by the natural breakdown of the radioactive radium-236 in soil and rocks, and it breaks down further to decay products that are also radioactive. These particles can then be inhaled. Radon gets into your home through any space that is in contact with ground sources of radon, whether soil, rock or water. Cracks in foundations or in basements, floor-wall joints, mortar joints, and loose-fitting pipe penetrations can all allow radon to enter your home.
Once inside, radon levels can become concentrated because of limited ventilation.
Levels of radon gas outdoors are quite low, approximately 0.4 picoCuries per Liter. If the level inside your house was that low, you would have very little to worry about. Unfortunately, many homes have levels significantly higher than that. For that reason, the Surgeon General's office of the U.S. Public Health Service and the Environmental Control Agency have both stated that radon is among the most serious environmental hazards we face.
Should you buy that radon test kit? Absolutely.
There is no way to know the radon level in your home without testing. Even if all of your neighbors tested and found low levels, your home's level could still be dangerously high.
I recommend one of the long term kits, which will more accurately represent your home's average radon level. These kits remain in your home for more than three months, and then are sent to a lab for testing. Short term kits will give you a quicker answer, but high results on one of these should be confirmed by at least a repeat short term test or by a long term test before you take action.
The actions needed to solve the problem would vary depending on your situation, but might include depressurization to vent the air from under the house, as well as fixing the structural problems that allowed radon to enter in high amounts. The eventual goal will be for homes to have no greater radon levels than the outdoor environment. At the present time we do not have the technology to achieve that, however. It is possible, though, to reduce radon levels to below 2 picoCuries per liter (and sometimes to below 1.3), levels at which the risk of lung cancer is felt to be relatively low.
Here, from the EPA, is a summary of the steps you should take. They assume that you are running a short-term test first. 1. If the short-term test result is 4pCi/L or higher, conduct a follow-up test to confirm the results.
2. Follow-up with either a long-term test or a second short-term test.
For a better understanding of the home's year-round average radon level, take a long-term test. If results are needed quickly, take a second short-term test.
The higher the initial short-term result, the more certain the homeowner can be to conduct a short-term rather than a long-term follow-up test. If the first short-term test result is several times the action level-for example, about 10 pCi/L or higher-a second short-term test should be taken immediately.
3. If the long-term follow-up test result is 4 pCi/L or more, fix the home.
If the homeowner followed up with a second short-term test: the higher the short-term results, the more certain the homeowner can be that the home should be fixed. The homeowner should consider fixing the home if the average of the first and second test is 4 pCi/L or higher.
Test kits can be obtained from local department stores or can be ordered online (often with free shipping). Look for kits that are EPA approved. They may vary in price from about $10 for a short term kit to $25 to $30 for a long term kit (see http://www.radonserv.com/products.htm for an Alpha Track Test kit---long term test---for $24.95 with free shipping).
References: www.epa.gov/iaq, "Radon-A Physician's Guide: The Health Threat With a Simple Solution," and www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/physic.html.
For more information, contact EPA's Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse at 1-800-438-4318 and ask for publications about radon. The website listed as number one above also has maps showing the typical radon levels in your area (remember, you can't assume yours is the same). The same site includes state-by-state contact information and worthwhile links.
Dr. Sue Abell is the mother of four and a pediatrician at the Child and Adolescent Clinic in Longview. Please send questions to her in care of The Daily News, P.O. Box 189, Longview, WA 98632, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be passed on to Dr. Abell.