Make testing your home for radon a New Year’s resolution

Radon, a naturally-occurring radioactive gas, is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Learn how to test your home and what steps to take if the test indicates an elevated radon level.

Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates January as National Radon Action Month as part of their ongoing campaign to educate citizens about the health risks associated with high levels of radon. This odorless, tasteless, invisible gas is found in soil and rocks as a result of the decay of naturally-occurring radium and uranium in the earth. High levels of radon have been discovered in all 50 states. It can seep from the ground into homes, schools, offices and other buildings through cracks in the foundation, walls and joints. As most people spend the majority of their time at home, it is most likely the location where you and family members will have the greatest exposure to radon.

Radon is found in outdoor air as well as in the indoor air of buildings. In some parts of the country, it has also been known to infiltrate groundwater. When groundwater is used for drinking and other common household activities including showering, cooking and washing dishes, the radon gas is released into the air further increasing the existing radon levels in your home. While only 1-2 percent of radon in the air comes from drinking water, it does contribute to radon exposure over your lifetime.

Why the concern about radon levels? Studies indicate that radon exposure increases your risk of lung cancer. Many people may assume that lung cancer only happens to smokers. While smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, causing about 160,000 deaths in the U.S. annually according to the EPA, radon is the second leading cause overall and the first leading cause among non-smokers. Annually, approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths nationwide are attributed to radon with 2,900 of these individuals having never smoked. If one is a smoker, exposure to radon further increases the risk of lung cancer.

Both the EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General suggest testing your home every two years. Winter is an especially good time to conduct radon testing as having windows and doors closed is one of the recommendations for accurate radon testing. Simple to use, short-term test kits are available, often from your local health department or your Michigan State University Extension office. If test results indicate elevated levels, the EPA recommends following up with additional testing.

The average radon level for U.S. homes is about 1.3 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) while the average concentration in outdoor air is much lower at .4 pCi/L. While radon levels exceeding 4pCi/L (picocuries per liter) are definitely considered unsafe, the EPA recommends citizens take steps to reduce the radon level for homes with test results above 2 pCi/L.

Although you may be able to make some of the recommended modifications yourself, the EPA suggests using qualified contractors who have been trained in radon mitigation. While Michigan does not license or regulate radon contractors, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Indoor Air Program can provide you with names of contractors certified by national organizations that do so or you may wish to visit the websites of those organizations, National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) and National Radon Safety Board (NRSB), yourself.

You can find a wealth of information about radon at EPA’s Publications and Resources page or by calling one of several radon-related hotlines operated by Kansas State University in partnerships with EPA. Start the new year off right by resolving to learn more about radon and test your home. 

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