Radon Facts and Health Effects

According to the EPA and the CDC, radon is responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States.

In January of 2005, the U.S. Surgeon General Health Advisory let out the warning, “Indoor radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the country. It’s important to know that this threat is completely preventable. Radon can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established venting techniques.” -https://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/env/radon/en/

You are unable to see, smell, or taste radon gas physically. Even if you are breathing in high radon gas levels, there will be no apparent signs; however, long-term will lead to developing lung cancer. Once inside the home, only a radon mitigation system will be capable of completely removing the radon gas.

Once you breathe in radon, the radioactive particles from the gas can get trapped in your lungs. Over time, these particles can spur cancerous cells’ development, depending on how many particles get trapped in the lungs.

Those who smoke are even more at risk of developing lung cancer after exposure to harmful radon gas. There are no specific medical tests that can accurately assess exposure, so it is imperative to be aware of lung cancer signs and symptoms to stop it before it spreads.

Some signs of the beginning stages of lung cancer include wheezing, chronic or persistent cough, weight loss, fatigue, or coughing up blood. Chances of lung cancer increase with the amount of time spent in the home, whether you are a smoker or have smoked, and whether you burn wood, coal, or any other substances that would add extra carcinogenic particles to the air. Ensure you see your doctor immediately if you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms.

How Does Radon Enter the Home

People are exposed to radon mainly from breathing radon that leaks through the cracks in a home or building.

Radon, a radioactive, odorless gas that forms naturally when radioactive metals (uranium, thorium, or radium) break down in soil, rocks, or groundwater, comes naturally from the Earth.

Air pressure inside the home is usually lower than the soil’s pressure around the home’s foundation. Because of the pressure difference, your home becomes a vacuum for radon, sucking it inside the foundation’s cracks and gaps.

Radon may also be present in well water and get released when you shower or get some drinking water. When the ground produces radon, it can dissolve and build up in those underground water sources. This concern is usually low because of how regulated the water supply is for public or private well systems that supply 25 or more units.

If you receive water from the public water system, an annual water quality report is published and delivered to their customers each year by July 1st.

This water quality assessment results include information on what is in your water, if the water has been tested for radon, and generally how safe the water is. Radon from naturally occurring water bodies is of minimal concern because most radon escapes from the water before entering the public water distribution system.

The EPA estimates that only one to two percent of indoor radon is from water. Radon occurs naturally, so people tend to be exposed to it in small amounts daily; however, high radon levels will result in devastating effects on the body.

Radon accesses the indoor air primarily through cracks and gaps in the soil underneath the home or other buildings. The air pressure difference between the soil around the foundation and inside the house will create a negative pressure differential inside the home, allowing the radon to rise through those cracks.

According to the American Lung Association, one in fifteen homes tests positive for dangerous levels of radon throughout the country.

How Do I Know If I Have Radon in my Home

If you suspect radon to be in your home, a test is immediately necessary. Radon mitigation professionals recommend testing twice because of possible fluctuation in the levels or radon throughout any given week.

Graph of RDP levels in the home over time

Once radon gets inside of a home, it begins to form decay products. Some activities inside the house might impact the equilibrium, which is heavily influenced by the home’s ventilation, specifically air leakages.

Air filtering would eliminate some of the radon decay products; however, not the radon since it is an inert gas. Air leaks may enable some of the RDPs to leave the house organically.

RDPs may cling to or “plate out” on walls, floorings, and other household items. All of these elements can prevent the RDPs from reaching the maximum concentration.

They will ultimately reach a final concentration, which stabilizes the quantity of RDPs produced and lost through plate-out and ventilation. This balance is known as the equilibrium ratio. It will usually take about 12 hours to attain this balance in a home after closing windows and doors.

Specialty companies like Airthings manufacture indoor air quality products to continuously monitor radon.

There are a couple of ways to monitor radon in your home without a professional. If you are in a hurry, you can do a short term test (2 to 90 days). Ensure you keep all the windows and doors closed as much as possible to ensure an accurate reading.

Open windows will drastically affect your radon tests’ results by varying the air quality and flow. Some names of short-term monitors are charcoal canisters, charcoal liquid scintillation detectors, and continuous monitors.

Although short-term monitors are decently reliable and straightforward to use, radon levels fluctuate day to day and month to month. This means that an accurate test will need to be more long-term or more than 90 days. Alpha-track and electret ion chamber detectors can be utilized for long-term testing of indoor radon levels.

Regardless of the testing method, testing for radon in the home is simple and inexpensive. You can pick a kit up at most hardware stores or by contacting your state official.

For the most accurate results, you must follow all the instructions precisely:

  • Testing kits should be placed in the basement or lowest home level.
  • After placing the radon test kit, it is time to leave it alone for the designated amount of time to test for radon.
  • A state official can explain the differences between all the testing devices and recommend the most appropriate ones for your conditions.

Once completed, pack the test up as instructed and send it back to the laboratory for analysis. Within a few weeks, you should receive results that will inform you if professional assistance is needed to remediate the radon gas in your home or not.

What if My Home Has High Levels of Radon

The best option is to design or install a radon mitigation system. A radon mitigation system is any method or steps that reduce the radon concentrations in a home or building’s indoor air.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if your radon test results are 4 pCi/L or higher, you need to do something about the high levels of radon in your home.

Most of the time, this process begins at home. You can reduce radon without making significant renovations or breaking the bank.

Chart of your relative radon risk if you have never smoked cigarettes

Suppose you decide to start fixing the issue yourself. In that case, you should first contact your state radon office or the Radon Fix-It line (1-800-644-6999) for more critical information on DIY radon mitigation. However, we strongly recommended that a radon mitigation expert design and install each system accordingly.

One simple thing you can do is seal and caulk all foundation gaps and cracks to reduce the amount of radon allowed to enter the home. Sealing limits radon flow and minimizes loss of conditioned air, supporting other radon elimination techniques.

Although air sealing your home makes other radon reduction methods more effective, the Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend using sealant alone to reduce radon. There is no solid evidence that sealing the cracks alone has significantly lowered radon levels; it is nearly impossible to identify and seal all the places where radon is entering the home. Everyday usage of the home will always open new entry routes and can reopen old ones.

Chart of your relative radon risk if you smoke cigarettes

Another thing you could do to reduce radon is to install an active soil depressurization system (ASD), otherwise known as a radon vent fan system. You can place a 3-4 inch pipe strategically in the lowest level of the home to pull radon from underneath the house and vent it outside.

Creating a gas-permeable layer beneath the lower-level flooring can also help the radon move under the home, but it is only successful if you have a basement or slab foundation.

If you have a crawl space, you will need to control the radon entry with plastic sheeting. This method should be performed by someone who knows what they are doing to avoid creating higher radon levels.

Professional Radon Mitigation

Rather than creating one yourself, you can also have a radon system installed in your home. A properly installed radon mitigation system will disperse the gas harmlessly, making the home much safer. They also require minimal maintenance over their lifespan, making this choice a top contender.

The EPA states that you should have a qualified radon mitigation contractor to fix your home because of the specific technical knowledge it requires.

Without proper training, you could increase radon levels or create more hazards and costs for yourself.

The majority of radon reduction systems alert you when and if the system needs servicing. Regardless of how you remediate the radon levels in your home, it would be best to retest the home afterward to make sure the radon levels have effectively reduced to a safe level and that they stay reduced.

Experts say this test should be conducted no sooner than 24 hours nor later than thirty days following the radon treatment. An independent tester could be a better option in this case if you are worried about a conflict of interest.

Additionally, radon testing should be conducted every two years after or as recommended by the state.

Shop around for a contractor just like you would with any other service. It is always smart to get more than one estimate, ask for references, and make sure to contact them and ask about satisfaction with the contractor’s work. You can also ask your state radon or consumer protection office for information about the contractor.

Ask your chosen contractor to prepare the contract before any actual work begins, and ensure you read the agreement thoroughly. Ensure everything matches the original proposal, including the work done before and during the system’s installation, what the system is made up of, and how it will operate after installation.

The majority of contractors will guarantee that they will adjust or modify the levels to match the desired amount (2 pCi/L or less). It is wise to consider additional options such as an extended warranty, service plan, or better aesthetics of the device installed in your home. They may add to the cost of the system but could be worth the extra cost.

Types of Radon Mitigation Systems

When selecting a radiation mitigation system for your home, consider these things:

  • the initial radiation level in your home,
  • radon mitigation system installation costs,
  • your home size, and
  • the type of foundation under your house.

A hired contractor’s cost ranges from $800 to $2,500, with $1,200 being the average. The amount you pay for the system will vary depending on the home size and the chosen radon reduction method. Most types of reduction systems affect the heated or air-conditioned air, which could increase utility bills. Active systems using fans will also slightly increase energy bills just from being active.

Construction of house foundation with radon mitigation system radon iglus

You can help immensely in the process by being aware of the structure of your own home. Your contractor will perform a visual inspection and then design a system that explicitly treats the radon for your home.

If they need more information than a visual inspection, the contractor may need to perform diagnostic tests. For example, your contractor can use chemical smoke to find the air movement’s source and direction.

The sources of airflow represent possible routes for radon gas to enter the home. A radon mitigation specialist will test air buoyancy by referencing the stack effect or air movement into and out of buildings.

Another type of diagnostic test is a soil communications test. The test utilizes a vacuum cleaner paired with chemical smoke to determine how easily air can move from one point to another under the foundation or in the crawl space.

Watching the smoke movements during a soil communications test aids the contractor in deciding what type of system will work best for each specific house or situation.

When some homes are built, they are constructed and designed to be equipped with passive radon systems.

A passive radon mitigation system contains only two things: a vent pipe that extends from the sub-slab up to the edge of the roof’s eave line and a physical barrier between the soil and house foundation. This system relies on the natural pressure differences and air currents to keep radon away from the home.

Most of the time, homes are built with these but never tested for radon. This is a problem because passive systems do not work well enough to bring high levels down below 4 pCi/L, but only enough to filter small amounts of gas out. Many new construction homes are built with these, but the homeowners know little or nothing about their function. 

An active radon system is installed when a home is found to contain high levels of radon gas. Most likely, this is the option that the professional contractor will choose when approaching the radon issue.

The active system consists of a few different elements. First, an electric vent fan must be installed to actively push the radon gas out of your home. This system usually takes the form of a pipe running from the basement to the roof’s top.

It also includes a system failure warning device and sealing of the cracks in the home’s foundation. This system is much more effective because the fan continuously removes radon from the building and is ideal for homes with higher radon levels than 4 pCi/L. Luckily, if a passive system already exists, a licensed specialist can add a fan to the passive system to turn it into an active radon mitigation system.

Contractor Methods to Lower Radon Levels

Besides installing a set system, there are other ways that contractors can lower radon levels and prevent future radon from entering the home. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends methods that prevent the entry of radon.

Contractors get their information from visual inspection, diagnostic tests, and experience, so every experience with a contractor may result differently.

One method is known as sub-slab suction, a type of soil suction. It prevents radon by drawing the radon from below the house and venting it through a pipe to the home’s exterior. The suction pipes’ number and location depend on how easily the air can move in the soil beneath the slab.

Usually, only one suction point is necessary. A radon fan connected to the suction pipe draws the radon gas out from below the house while simultaneously creating negative pressure underneath the slab. The fans are usually quiet and are installed in the attic space or ground level for exterior installations.

There is also passive sub-slab suction, normally associated with newly built homes.

Some new homes have drain tiles or intentionally holed PVC pipes to direct water away from the home’s foundation. Sub-slab-depressurization is the action of pulling the radon gas from the soil below a concrete slab.

A hole is drilled through the concrete floor to reach the soil below to accessing any radon that needs exhausting to the home’s exterior.

Suction on the tiles is known to reduce radon in small levels, and there are even more options for radon in the water. A variation of sub-slab and drain tile suction is a sump pit.

When a basement is equipped with a sump pump to remove the unwanted water, the sump can be capped, allowing continuous water drainage and serving as the main location for a radon suction pipe.

A sump pit is also used for the radon system, draining the perimeter to clear it of excess water.

Another method is called block wall suctioning. This method can be used in basement houses with hollow block foundation walls. Similar to sub-slab suction, block wall suction removes radon and depressurizes the block wall. Usually, contractors will accompany sub-slab suction with block wall suctioning for optimal radon removal.

For homes that have crawl spaces, there are other effective methods to reduce radon levels. One of these methods includes covering the earth floor with a thick, plastic sheet. A vent pipe and fan are positioned, pulling the radon gas out from below the vapor barrier to vent the radon from under the sheet to the outdoors.

This method is called submembrane suction, and it has proven to be the best method to eliminate unhealthy levels of radon in homes with crawlspaces. The other, less-favorable option is active crawl space depressurization, involving a radon vent fan attempting to mirror natural ventilation. This method is unfavorable due to back-drafting, inadequate foundation design, and heightened energy costs.

Finishing Things Up

Although radon is a part of the environment and generally harmless, long-term exposure to it can have devastating health effects.

Exposure to high levels of radon can cause lung cancer, even if you don’t smoke. Because testing is so accessible and inexpensive, don’t hesitate to begin the process in your own home.

Any combination of radon reduction techniques will improve the air quality and lung health of the entire family. And if your homes’ radon levels are unexpectedly high, there are many different options on how to proceed to keep your living spaces safe and cozy for you and your family to live in for years to come.

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