What is Radon?

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Ever want to know what Radon is and why homes are inspected for it? This article will answer those questions. Radon is a naturally occurring, cancer causing chemical gas that is odorless, colorless and tasteless. But more importantly, it is radioactive, which means it transforms itself by releasing tiny bursts of energy. When radon disintegrates, it releases its radioactive energy in Alpha, Beta or Gamma form.  The radioactive nature of radon is what makes it dangerous to us, and why it is of great concern to mitigate.

Radon gas comes from the breakdown of Uranium in soil and igneous rock. It’s important to note that radon can also be found in well water, which means we can be exposed through both inhalation and ingestion.

Because radon is 9 times denser than air, it easily penetrates common home building materials, such as paints, sheetrock, concrete blocks, paneling and insulation. In fact, the U.S EPA and the Surgeon Generals Office estimate that as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths are caused each year by radon. Radon is also the second leading cause of lung cancer.

While it’s important to know there is no safe level, there is a level where action must be taken. The action level for radon exposure, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 4pCi/L. This formula represents a pico Curie per Liter. A pico Curie is one-trillionths of a Curie. A pico Curie is equivalent to 37 Billion radioactive disintegrations per second. So just one pico Curie is equivalent to 2.2 radioactive disintegrations per minute in a liter of air.  

It is easy to find out where the highest risks of radon are. Each state has designated counties listed by EPA zones, designating which counties have the highest and lowest risk factors. Here in my state of Virginia, there are 46 counties classified as Zone 1, meaning the highest risk.  Most states also have readon inspection kits available for a discount.

Now that we know what radon is, we can focus on testing and removal. As radon is a gas, the preferred place to test for it is in the lowest levels of a home. In my area, a short-term radon test is usually called for. This short-term test is conducted under Closed-house conditions for 48 hours. This means all windows and exterior doors are closed, with the exception of entering or exiting. The kitchen and bathrooms fans are turned off, and the fireplace damper is closed.

As for removal, there are several proven methods to reduce the level of radon in the home. The one primarily used is a vent pipe system with a fan, normally placed on the side of the house. This system, called a subslab suction radon reduction system, pulls radon from beneath the house, before it enters your home, and vents it to the outside. This system does not require major changes to your home. However, it will be visible on the outside of the home. The right system however, depends on the location and design of your home. In conclusion, while you can rarely remove radon completely from your home, you can certainly reduce the hazard to an acceptable level.