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What is Radon?

Did you know that Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer? The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Surgeon General’s Office estimate that as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths are caused every year by Radon poisoning. Just in case you’re not good with facts and numbers like that, we’ll go ahead and spell it out for you- there were approximately 159, 480 lung and bronchus cancer deaths in 2013. In other words, 13% of deaths caused by lung cancer every year are because of Radon. That’s a pretty high number, and it means a lot more people are being affected by this silent killer than one would like to think.

According to the US EPA, every one in three homes tested – across seven different states – showed levels higher than 4 pCi/L, which is the highest exposure level recommended. A family that lives in a home with that same level of Radon gas, is exposed to nearly 35 times more radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow for, if they were near a radioactive waste site.

The one thing we can definitely conclude from all of that information is that Radon is a pretty big deal. In addition, it can be very dangerous and harmful to those who have been exposed to it. This is all very valuable information, but it leaves more than a few questions that need to be answered.

What exactly is Radon? Why is it so harmful? What are the symptoms of Radon poisoning and how can you tell if it’s a factor in your home? Why and how should you have it removed?

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

What is Radon?

Radon was first discovered by an English physicist named Ernest Rutherford in 1899. The discovery has also been credited to a German physicist named Friedrich Ernst Dorn in 1900. Rutherford originally discovered the element Radon’s alpha radiation, while Dorn discovered the fact that radium released a gas as it decayed.

Radon Element Symbol

Radon

Radon is a radioactive gas that is actually odorless, tasteless and invisible. It is directly responsible for causing respiratory cancer in individuals that have been exposed to the gas in high levels. Some scientific studies have shown that children may be much more sensitive to radon exposure, because they see higher respiratory rates and rapidly dividing cells - as they grow. In any case, the gas can cause severe radiation damage in the lungs and surrounding areas of the body.

Radon gas is actually nine times denser than air, and because it’s comprised of a single atom that means it can easily penetrate a great deal of materials or layers. For example, Radon gas can pass through paper, leather, plastic, paints, sheetrock, concrete blocks, mortar and even insulation.

Radon can actually build up inside a home without the inhabitants knowing. Interestingly enough, smokers are actually more susceptible to lung cancer in a home with higher Radon levels. The gas can also be found in any indoor area where air is confined. Some other common places that see elevated Radon gas levels include schools, workplaces, mines, public baths, spas and more.

Radon is actually used in some spas because of presumed medical benefits, which we’re not going to discuss here.

Common Myths About Radon

There is a lot of misinformation floating around. For years, there have been several myths bounced around about the dangers of Radon gas in general. Before we delve into the particulars, let’s explore some of the most common things that have been said which are not true.

Myths About Radon

  • Scientists are not sure whether or not Radon is a problem – this is false, we know for sure it’s a problem there are just many debates on how extensive the dangers are
  • Radon testing is too difficult, expensive and time consuming – it is not any of these things
  • Home with elevated Radon levels cannot be fixed or lived in – a home with Radon issues can be fixed very quickly and easily in most cases, and is most certainly still livable
  • Radon only affects certain types of homes, including those built years ago – Radon can affect any home or location, it doesn’t matter
  • My neighbor has elevated Radon levels, so I probably do too – Radon levels can vary greatly from residence to residence, the only way to know for sure is to perform a test
  • You cannot sell a residence or business that previously had Radon problems – this is not true at all, in fact after a residence has been protected from future Radon problems most buyers would consider this a bonus

Why is it so Harmful?

As we said above, Radon is one of the leading causes of lung cancer. It can cause many health issues in those who are exposed to high levels of the gas. In addition, it can also cause chromosomal abnormalities, otherwise known as a mutation.

There has been some debate as to the magnitude of health risks associated with Radon exposure. A great deal of testing results have been performed on underground miners that were exposed to elevated levels of Radon. That doesn't mean we don't know whether or not Radon exposure is dangerous, because it most certainly is. We just don't know for sure how harmful the gas can be to the average human body.

Even so, there are several different forms of lung cancer one can contract from chronic exposure to Radon gas:

Cancers Caused By Radon Exposure

  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • small cell carcinoma
  • adenocarcinoma
  • large cell carcinoma
To add to that, there are also several respiratory diseases or issues that can be caused by Radon exposure:

Radon Related Respiratory Issues

  • emphysema
  • pulmonary fibrosis
  • chronic interstitial pneumonia
  • silicosis
  • respiratory lesions

As Radon decays it disperses particles into the air, what we know as Radon gas. Those particles enter the lungs during inhalation and attach directly to lung tissue. Over time, the particles start to impact the health of the individual’s lungs. The impacts of those Radon particles in the lungs – as you can see above – include several very harmful diseases. Because of all this, Radon gas has been classified as a Group A carcinogen.

What Are the Chances of Getting Lung Cancer after Radon Exposure?

There's no need to panic if tests show elevated Radon levels, nor is there a need to order all kinds of medical tests for everyone in your family. By all means, if your residence shows elevated levels you should definitely visit a doctor. However, unless the doctor tells you something is clearly wrong there's no reason to worry. That is because Radon gas does not cause respiratory cancer overnight. In fact, it takes a great deal of time. Whether or not the gas damages your body depends on the amount of Radon in your residence, how long you've been exposed, the amount of time you spend in your residence and whether or not you smoke.

In fact, there aren't even any guarantees that Radon exposure will cause cancer in your body. Obviously, that's because cancer itself is not a guaranteed problem – not yet anyway. Continued exposure is what increases the health risks from Radon. Therefore, the sooner you test your residence and take action the better.

What are the Symptoms of Radon Poisoning?

Radon gas has a half-life of 3.8 days whereupon it breaks down into polonium and lead atoms. All of these elements are indeed toxic to the human body however it takes a long time for them to collect in high enough quantities that it causes major health issues. Unfortunately, that means there are no early warning signs or symptoms for Radon gas poisoning.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to check for Radon gas in your home, or business. In fact, testing is the only way to tell if your body has been exposed to Radon gas in the first place. That is why frequent, and multiple Radon tests are recommended for any residence or business.

How Does Radon Get Into a Residence?

Radon comes from the natural decay of uranium, which is found in most soils. As the uranium decays, it releases Radon into the surrounding air. Most of the time, this Radon gas will filter out into the open air and disperse. It can collect and build up under your home in the same fashion, depending on how the foundation has been built. It will then move through the air and make its way inside the home through cracks and various openings in the foundation, floors, and walls. Sometimes Radon can even come from drinking water, but that's another problem entirely.

The home essentially traps the Radon gas inside, collecting it until it reaches a dangerous level. It doesn't matter whether the home is new or old, nor does it matter how well a home is sealed off from the elements. Any home or place of residence is susceptible to Radon. In fact, there is a very limited selection of construction materials which Radon will not pass through.

Entry Points For Radon

  • Cracks in the floor
  • Construction joints or gaps
  • Cracks in the walls
  • Gaps or seams in the suspended floors
  • Gaps and seams in service pipes or plumbing
  • Cavities and hollow areas inside walls
  • Through the water supply

It is estimated that 1 out of every 15 homes in the US have elevated Radon levels. If you want to know about the state of Radon in your particular area you can visit the state Radon office for more information.

How Can You Tell if Radon Gas is in Your Place of Residence or Business?

There are several ways to detect Radon gas, one of the most common is to run a test. Believe it or not, there are two different types of tests you can run: short-term tests, and long-term tests.

Short-term tests generally involve leaving some type of device or measurement tool in the residence anywhere from 2 to 90 days. Short-term tests are not as effective, because Radon levels do fluctuate from day to day depending on the temperature, season, and other variables.

Long-term tests call for leaving a device or tool in your house for much longer than 90 days. Long-term tests are specifically designed to give you an accurate reading of year-round Radon levels.

Conducting a Radon test in your home or business is actually very simple and it is also relatively inexpensive. Radon testing kits can be anywhere from $15 all the way up to $60 depending on how advanced the test is. You can purchase testing kits from hardware stores, retail outlets, local health departments and online – which is actually one of the easiest and cheapest places to find them. In addition, it only takes a few days to get the results unless you're conducting a long-term test in which case the results will be returned at the end of the extended testing period.

The EPA recommends that if the test returns results in excess of 4 pCi/L you perform a follow-up test shortly after. Common practice is to start with a short term tests and if the results show elevated Radon levels then retest using long-term standards.

You can also purchase a Radon detector which works just like a smoke detector. There are several different kinds of detectors too. Some will sound an alarm if the Radon levels grow too high, while others will display Radon levels outright.

If you're buying a new home or business or you're building one, contractors will generally test for Radon before and after a transaction. It's important that you are aware about Radon levels before you move into a new residence, therefore you should always have a new home or apartment tested. Radon gas removal can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,500, so if Radon levels are high that should factor into your purchase price.

What Do the Radon Test Results and Levels Mean?

The average outdoor level of Radon gas is about 0.4 pCi/L, while the average indoor level is approximately 1.3 pCi/L. As you can see, the recommended limit is much higher than both of those numbers. The US Congress has actually set a goal to achieve indoor Radon levels that do not exceed the outdoor levels. In other words, they want Radon to be equally dispersed indoors and out. Obviously, that goal will not be met any time soon. However, it is certainly possible for any and all residences to maintain a level of 2 pCi/L or below.

It's also important to keep in mind that if test results show elevated Radon levels, there is no reason to panic. Sometimes even when short-term tests show higher levels, it can be due to the time of year, temperature or many other variables. Essentially, what that means is that the average Radon level in a residence can still be low even if a test returns bad results. According to the EPA, no level of Radon exposure is safe. That being said, as long as your average level is below the recommended limit you should be okay.

A lot of elements can disturb a test, which is also why you should perform multiple tests no matter what the results are.

How Often Should a Residence Be Tested?

It is a good idea to test Radon levels in a residence at least once a year. If you don't want to keep up on that schedule, then you should test a residence every time your living habits change. For example, if you move to a lower level in your home - like changing your bedroom to one on the first story - then you should retest your residence again at the new level. Basements or underground shelters should always be tested for Radon gas, as they are most susceptible.

Other Reasons To Test Radon Levels

  • No test results were collected within the last two years
  • The residence has been renovated or altered in some way structurally
  • You move locations to a lower level in the house
  • You're moving in to a new location or residence

What Can Be Done to Remove Radon from a Residence?

If you perform a test yourself – or you have a test done – that returns Radon levels in excess of 4 pCi/L then you definitely need to Radon-proof your residence. The repairs are not necessarily going to be expensive, but the total cost will depend on the structure of your home. There are several different changes that can be made to any residence to lower Radon levels.

The best way to remove Radon from your home is to hire a contractor, who will then assess your residence and identify problem areas. Reductions could involve something as simple as repainting walls, or installing a new hot water heater. More advanced methods can involve replacing plumbing, sealing cracks and holes in the floors and walls, or installing an underground exhaust fan coupled with a connected airflow system.

Again, the steps and total cost involved in removing Radon from a residence is going to depend on the structure itself and how it was designed. The Radon removal process can actually be a lot more complicated than what was described here. This should merely be considered a primer - if you will.

Where Can I Find More Information About Radon?

Now that you know a little more about Radon gas and the health risks associated with it, it makes perfect sense that you'd want to research more on the subject. Feel free to browse our other pages here at Radon Resources. We have plenty of information about varying Radon levels, how to mitigate the deadly gas, and even how to test for it. Stay tuned for lots more in the future too!